Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Week 11, Jan. 20-26

Beat and I were really hoping to get at least one winter-training weekend in before we head to Alaska, but there is almost no snow to be found in the entire state of California. Yosemite Webcam views show open fields and bare pavement, and a friend reported hiking on dry dirt on the Tahoe Rim Trail, in January. The cold-weather gear testing wouldn't do us much good anyway, when it's 40 degrees overnight at 7,000 feet. Yes, it's summer in January here on the West Coast, from California on up to Nome, Alaska (51 degrees this week!) Here in the Bay Area we have sweaty outings in the high 70s. I admit this makes me grumpy. Not only do we have to endure summer discomfort all over again (wasps, chunder trails, sunburn), but I envision actual summer turning out much like a Steinbeck novel.

The grumpiness persists because I encountered a bad batch of allergies this week. I don't know what I am allergic to, but symptoms manifest as mild congestion, an uncomfortable rash, and resulting sleep disruption. I'm not actually sick, but I feel downtrodden as though I were sick, and so I'm demotivated about things and also guilty that I feel so demotivated. Going outside seems to help with the symptoms, but it's a chore to boost myself out the door when it's hot and I know sweat is going to exacerbate the rash. Last year, my doctor speculated that laundry detergent was causing this reaction. I switched that up to a sensitive skin brand, but had another bout last summer, so I switched my body wash. Looks like I need to think of some other household products to target. Or who knows? Perhaps I am just allergic to unseasonable heat. Allergies are stupid like that.

Okay, I was going to try to keep the grump out of this post as much as possible. I did have a nice week of training, and got some decent work done despite an ongoing desire to dunk my whole body in an ice bath for hours on end. I realize there's a polar vortex on the East Coast right now, and I have a few friends and acquaintances who are enduring a long night in the deep minus 20s in the Arrowhead 135, so I do try to keep perspective. It's actually pretty nice here. Okay, it's gorgeous. Grump, grump, grump.

Monday, Jan. 20: Rest. I decided to book-end a big weekend with rest days.

Tuesday, Jan. 21: Run, 1:12, 7.3 miles, 684 feet of climbing; I slowed up my running because of IT band concerns after Steep Ravine. The issue didn't come up at all this week.

Wednesday, Jan. 22: Road bike. 1:59, 22 miles, 4,200 feet climbing. I had to run some errands anyway so took the opportunity to drive out to Woodside and ride from Kings Mountain Road to Tunitas Creek and back. I love this route; it's so smooth and zippy for a ride on winding mountain roads with a ton of climbing.

Thursday, Jan. 23: Mountain bike, 0:46, 10.1 miles; Cart tow, 3:12, 9.5 miles, 302 feet climbing. Ah, the cart tow. A friend asked me what exactly is so difficult about towing a cart and/or sled, and the truth is that, minute for minute, there's nothing terribly hard about it. I just build up expectations based on running fitness that don't, for many obvious reasons, translate directly to man-hauling. Without extra weight and resistance, 10-minute-miles are easy breezy, but add a cart or sled and suddenly the same or more effort only nets half the speed. When I think about 350 such miles, I sort of want to hurl, not even taking into account the cold, the harsh weather, the remote isolation, and all of that other stuff. Even 350 miles of similar effort on a treadmill over ten days would make me feel a little queasy. But you take it one mile at a time, one minute at a time if you must. Take care of the body and mind, stay fascinated with the small pictures and determined about the big picture, and eventually you'll get there. The challenge of the slog is a process I actually do love, but it intimidates me, too.

Friday, Jan. 24: Run, 1:22, 6.6 miles, 1,592 feet climbing. Headed out to Oakland to meet with Ann, and we went for a run in the hills with her friend Steve. I had a chance to explain my ideas for a book project, and she seemed very interested. I know my blog makes it seem like I do nothing with my life but play outside and travel and race, which is maybe partially true. But in between the lines, I managed to pile up a number of projects and contractual responsibilities, and now it's time to really focus on the ones that are most important. A book about Ann has a lot of potential, and I have some ideas to bring the story to life for a large audience of readers, not just hardcore runners. And she likes my ideas, enough to give the go-ahead on crafting a book proposal. This has nothing to do with my training log, but I'm very excited about it.

Saturday, Jan. 25: Run, 2:55, 14 miles, 2,210 feet climbing. Beat did a cart-tow, and I walked with him for the first 2.5 miles to Rancho (he was actually shuffling, but the pace qualifies as a pleasant stroll for the person without the cart.) Then Liehann and I took off up the hill and ran the remaining 11.5 miles. My allergies were bothering me a lot, and I struggled on the climb, but eventually run fatigue took my mind off the clawing itchiness, and I was able to enjoy the back half.

Sunday, Jan. 26: Road bike, 5:30, 68.4 miles, 7,936 feet climbing. Allergies were making me crazy; this ride was my own way of crawling out of my skin for a few hours. Since IT band pain never flared up this week, I thought I should put in a longer run. But temperatures were nearing 80 and a ride beneath redwood canopy sounded so much more pleasant. Also, I was still experiencing some cart-tow angst, and I wanted to do something fast and flowing. Road biking around here is so much fun. I dislike riding with traffic, which is the main reason I don't embark on long road rides more often. But on this day I picked a good route:

Nice views on Skyline Ridge.

Narrow, quiet roads.

Big Basin Redwoods. Great spot. If Beat and I can't find snow next weekend (and it's looking extremely unlikely), I may just throw out the run training altogether and ride centuries instead. No matter what I do, dragging a sled across Alaska is going to be damn hard. But for now, it's summer in California, and I suppose I should enjoy it.

Total: 16:56, 37.4 miles run, 100.5 miles ride, 16,924 feet climbing
Friday, January 24, 2014

Exercise in doubt

I suspect I am not cut out to walk 350 miles to McGrath.

On some level, I can convince myself that's okay. I wasn't cut out to ride a loaded fat bike 350 miles to McGrath back in 2008, and did it anyway. However, given the speeds bicycles can move in optimal conditions, there's more of a time buffer on a bike. Foot travelers have a much slimmer range between "slow" and "too slow" — and "too slow" is exactly that.

Beat finally got our exercise cart up and running. This has been a laborious process in itself, involving much tinkering on Beat's part. He retrofitted a bicycle trailer with an extended pole attachment and Avid BB7 disc brakes, which are partially clamped onto the wheels at all times to mimic the resistance of snow (because wheels by themselves roll much too easily.) They brakes are even hooked up to brake levers on the pole for fine-tuning the resistance level. He added a wooden board to provide a firm base so the canvas bag is strong enough to hold sixty pounds of kitty litter. The whole set-up probably weighs close to eighty pounds. Heavier than a sled (at least my sled, hopefully), but the extra weight and brake resistance should balance out the advantages of pavement and gravel surfaces.

 Today we both planned to take it out for a practice run. Beat towed the cart for his commute to work, and I pedaled out later in the afternoon to swap the bike and run the cart home. The route is a flat eight miles along a paved bike path and neighborhood streets. While riding out, I took a two-mile detour to pedal along the Bay and gawk at shorebirds, because I was still enjoying myself.

 And then it was time to tow the cart home. Out in front of the Google offices, before I got my trekking poles out, the plan was to shuffle the whole way. Yeah. I figured I could play around in the hills along the shoreline and still run the ten miles in two hours. Yeah.

The hill test was fun, especially when I started down a steep singletrack and realized that the set brake resistance was not enough to stop this eighty-pound cart from jack-knifing around and dragging my body all the way down the hill. Luckily, those brake levers really did work. But as I started down the bike path toward home, the reality of the slog quickly became apparent. And amid the monotony of a paved path that runs parallel to a freeway, there was a lot of time and mental space for internal dialogue.

Gratuitous butt shot. But it illustrates the cart well and is still PG-rated, so I included it. 
"Run. Run harder."

"I'm running as hard as I can. It feels like I'm tied to a wall."

"17-minute miles, are you serious? That isn't even close to running."

"Argh, my heart rate has to be around 170 right now. No way I can sustain this in Alaska. No way I can sustain this for even another ... okay, walking. Walking now."

"You almost hit the 15-minute-mile range there. Now it's 22. Have you done any math on this yet?"

"No. No math."

"Factor in everything. Sled weight, trail conditions, weather, nutrition, accumulating fatigue. You're going to have to plan for two miles per hour average when you're not stopped at a checkpoint or sleeping. You realize that, right? Just to do the bare minimum you are going to have to be out and moving eighteen hours a day."

"That's a worst-case scenario."

"No, I think that's more of a normal-case scenario."

"Argh, my hamstrings are so tight. They're killing me. Body parts on my list to target and strengthen if I ever get a stupid idea like this in my head again and actually have enough time to work on it: 1. Hamstrings. 2. Glutes. 3. Hamstrings. 4. Shoulders. 5. Hamstrings."

"And it's not even cold here. It's seventy degrees and you're walking on a flat bike path."

"Yes, it's really hot. To pull a sled, I think you have to become like a sled dog. Sled dogs hate the heat and love the cold. Cold makes them fast. Ugh, I can feel sweat accumulating between my toes. Unless it's like minus twenty I'll probably never keep my feet dry in Alaska, and I really don't want it to be minus twenty the whole time. But I also don't want it to be forty above with Chinook winds and rain, either. That would be worse."

"You know, you're just not a strong runner. Why do this to yourself?"

"For the beautiful and terrible challenge!"

"You feel this, too, right? Aching hamstrings? Feeling as tired as a hard run for walking speeds? This is exactly the challenge you're facing. Just take the bike. It will still be a great adventure, and unless it's a repeat of 2012 bottomless fluff or some other horrendous condition that makes pushing a bike actually harder than dragging a sled ... it will be easier."

"But I haven't done any specific training on a bike this winter. I'm probably in worse shape for snow biking than I am for dragging a sled."

"That ... must be pretty bad. What have you been doing all winter?"

"I thought ... I was training ... (whimper.)"

... Yup. Pretty much managed to crush all of my confidence with one measly three hour and twelve minute, 9.5-mile cart pull. And with that, I might as well include last week's training log. To be honest I don't have a lot to say about it right now. My endurance is solid and I don't tire out much on the normal stuff I do. Glad I've been building that up, because I definitely have some long hours in front of me next month.

Week 10: January 13 to 19

Monday, Jan. 13: Road bike, 1:32, 17.5 miles, 2,570 feet of climbing.
Tuesday, Jan. 14: Run, 0:58, 5.7 miles, 625 feet of climbing. 10:11 min/mile.
Wednesday, Jan. 15: Mountain bike, 3:07, 31 miles, 3,607 feet climbing.
Thursday, Jan. 16: Run, 1:27, 8 miles, 1,288 feet climbing. 10:58 min/mile.
Friday, Jan. 17: Rest.
Saturday, Jan. 18: Run, 7:16, 31.6 miles, 6,915 feet climbing. 13:22 min/mile (moving.)
Sunday, Jan. 19: Mountain bike, 9:03, 79.3 miles, 9,298 feet climbing.

Total: 23:23, 45.3 miles run, 127.8 miles ride, 24,303 feet climbing.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Double beatdown

Thanks to the regular race schedules of the Bay Area's three trail running event organizers, and the annual regularity of our own training cycles, Beat and I have several local races that we've run many times. The Steep Ravine/Mount Tam 50K in the Marin Headlands is one of these races. I've run it five times ... five times! It's a little embarrassing, because this particular run never seems to go all that well. It makes sense, I suppose. Most of the climbing is quite steep, necessitating a walking speed, and I'm uncomfortable enough on steep descents that I end up walking or slow-shuffling a lot of the downhills as well. There's always that smidgen of hope that I'll have some kind of breakthrough in my trail running technique at Steep Ravine — which usually ends in disappointment after long hours of frustration accompanied by some kind of low-level pain.

It was a beautiful but hot day. I think California's severe drought is now well-publicized enough that I don't have to explain my grumpiness about weather that's 75 degrees and sunny in January. But the part of me that was really grumpy on this day was my IT band. I had problems with the same nagging pain back in October, but it hasn't bothered me at all since. Possibly a result of putting in too many faster running miles last week, the tightness and mild burning pain flared up again on Saturday. Specifically, it came back during the first descent in the race, on a trail called the Heather Cutoff. This rutted, dry clay, somewhat overgrown singletrack is built with what seem like a dozens of ridiculous hairpin switchbacks over the course of about 700 vertical feet, drawing out what should be a short descent interminably. My right IT band tightened like a rusty chain and I responded with quiet swearing ... "$%@$ concrete-hard %$#&*!^$ hairpins $%*!"

Admittedly, this descent pretty much set the tone for what really was a scenic run on a beautiful day.

This course consists of two 25K loops that climb and descend the face of Mount Tam four times. I met Beat before the turnaround, already three miles ahead of me. By this point I was resigned about the grumpy IT band but also resolved to work through it — by slowing down and actively taking measures not to aggravate it while continuing to make forward progress. This is, after all, what we're training for. Participating in a long haul like the Iditarod always takes a period of adjustment. By the end of the first day, nearly everything hurts. Back aches, quads burn, ankles swell and knees are sore. It seems impossible to continue but this is just part of the transition to the new normal. Bodies do adjust, but it's something the mind has to facilitate. This is why it was important to me that I get through Steep Ravine, by slowing down and working with my grumpy IT band rather than against it. When it tightened up, I backed off the pace, even when it felt snail-like, and even when I was walking down the practically level ridiculous &*$! hairpins of the Heather Cutoff.

We spent an enjoyable hour visiting with friends after the race, but it got late in the afternoon (and thus choked with traffic across the bridge and through the city) fast. I do value the improvements I manage to make in these trail races, even as training, so I can't pretend finishing in 7:16 wasn't disappointing, especially after enjoying such an effortlessly strong (and nearly two hours shorter) 50K at Crystal Springs last week. You know what they say ... sometimes days you have a great run, and some days you run the &%$! Steep Ravine. Still, I managed to stave off the "runner's knee" type condition that IT band aggravation can lead to, and running relatively slowly left me with plenty of pep for my Sunday plan:

Big mountain bike ride! I wanted to put in another back-to-back effort this weekend, and even before IT band pain crept in, I planned a ride as my second long workout. Although I do enjoy trail running quite a lot these days, I continue to believe that high mileage in training and daily running is not the best thing for my body. But there's really no such thing as too much biking — am I right? As it turned out, this plan worked extra well because cycling is one activity that doesn't seem to aggravate my IT band at all. In fact, I started out the day having a difficult time climbing out of the saddle because my right knee was so stiff, but by the end of the day the whole leg was loose and happy. Yay for biking.

During the week, I spent some time trying to map out a new loop through the Santa Cruz Mountains, hoping the bike-sploring factor would keep the ride interesting and thus keep motivation humming when I was sure to be sore and fatigued. My research ran into a bunch of road blocks in the form of private roads and too many no-bikes-allowed trails. So instead I plotted a variation of a loop through Big Basin Redwoods State Park that I've ridden before, and invited my friend Liehann to join. Liehann is a great riding partner — he pushes the pace but he's patient as well. I hoped having him along would prevent me from becoming lazy on difficult ascents or bailing altogether. On this route, there is a lot of climbing.

We started at my apartment and pedaled into the mountains up Steven's Canyon and the Grizzly Flat Trail, then onto the dry hills of Long Ridge. The first hour was rough for me, but by the time we reached the crest, I was settling nicely into comfortable endurance mode. We occasionally stopped to chat with other Sunday mountain bikers, and one woman commented on my seemingly huge backpack. The day before, during Steep Ravine, I became dehydrated and never rectified that after the race. As a result, I woke up in the middle of the night with a truly horrible hangover-like headache, which kept me awake for hours. The specter of that headache and the knowledge that there was only one known water source on our entire route prompted me to pack a lot of water, along with lights, jacket, hat, mittens, food ... I was having one of those "I'm tired and I need my security blanket" days. The big backpack makes me slower, but no water makes me miserable. Anyway, I explained that we were planning to spend the whole day riding, so I came prepared. She was impressed with the ground we'd covered so far, and we were just getting started.

After another descent and climb, we reached Big Basin Redwoods. The higher elevations of this park are an impressive contrast to the misty redwood forests below — sandy, alpine desert with chaparral brush and Douglas fir, exposed to lots of sunlight, and often significantly warmer. Drop a thousand feet and suddenly you're in an entirely different microclimate. Big Basin is an intriguing region.

My favorite aspect of Big Basin is the remote, wild sense of the place. I like that I can leave my house, which is located in crowded metropolis of 7 million, and pedal my bicycle to a space that looks and feels like real wilderness. You don't see many people here, either, even on a beautiful sunny and warm Sunday afternoon.

There are a few people among these trees, though, who seem to be delightfully quirky. We passed this elaborate treehouse as we descended into Gazos Creek Canyon. I suppose if I had property in a redwood forest, I too would be tempted to build a treehouse. And what a great spot!

The descent on intermittently chunky and loamy fireroad was fast and furious. We plummeted into a zone of towering redwoods, lush ferns, moss-coated rocks and actual water flowing in the creeks (such a novelty!) A rush of cold air made it feel as though we'd dropped into a refrigerator. The temperature was easily in the 40s after leaving a ridge basking in sun and 70s just five miles earlier. Down here is a world that doesn't see much in the way of direct sunlight — in January, probably none at all.

Although I'd felt reasonably okay all day, my blood sugar dropped, along with my appetite, on the long and steep climb up Pomponio Road. We'd made something of a hard sprint over twenty miles of flatter terrain while wrapping around Pescadero and the Old Haul fireroad, the only way to legally connect Big Basin with Portola Redwoods State Park and eventually Skyline Ridge. After that, there just wasn't a lot left in the tank. I struggled on this climb, mainly with bonky nausea and hard breathing from overworking my cardiovascular system. Just when I really started to feel wobbly, Liehann convinced me to eat an 80-calorie pack of gummy bears, which was surprisingly (actually, unsurprisingly) effective in turning my poor condition around. We crested Skyline after dark and descended Page Mill into a rush of city lights. Exhilarating and satisfying.

The ride came in at nine hours total, for 80 miles with 9,289 feet of climbing. The run was 7:16, just under 32 miles, with 6,915 feet of climbing. Sixteen hours of hard effort over two days is not much in the scheme of things, and this is the perspective I'm working on honing with these back-to-back workouts — polishing the long-term sustainable pace and practicing positivity and self-maintenance amid sore body parts and fatigue. And, grumpy IT band aside, it turned out to be a fantastic weekend. I love these long hauls most of all, so indulging in two of them with friends is a special treat.