Friday, February 07, 2014

The February ritual

For many of the past nine Februarys, I've participated in this ritual — winding down a winter training block, amassing dishearteningly obese piles of food and gear, obsessively checking weather forecasts, and actively contributing to pre-race gloom-and-doom trail predictions whether I'm 250 miles away or 2,500 miles away. The gloom and doom right now is that there's no snow in Alaska after the January thaw, and the Iditarod Trail is made of frozen tussocks and glare ice. Temperatures have been dropping, and new snow has yet to materialize. If it doesn't, the technical challenge of the conditions can only be
The Iditarod Trail right now. Photo from Bjorn Olsen,
imagined. I think some of the cyclists are envisioning a blue highway, but I don't see it this way at all. Have you spent much time on uneven glare ice? Such trail conditions were rather common when I lived in the freeze-thaw cycle of Juneau. Even with microspikes or studded tires, that @$%! is sketchy. And the Alaska wilderness is not a convenient place to end up with a concussion. Not to mention all of the open creeks that are usually covered in snow bridges. No snow and 30 below is entirely plausible on parts of the route, and I try to imagine what that might be like. The surface of Mars comes to mind.

Still, this is Alaska, and things will change. They always do. It's one of the tantalizing appeals of this trail — you can't really count on anything, so you have to plan for everything. Here in California, weather has finally shifted to something closer to winter-like, and we've had a decent dump of rain that should continue into the weekend. I got out today for what feels like my first real Bay Area winter run this year — a fine mist wafted on the breeze as I climbed into fog so thick I could barely see my feet. Shoes sank into the clay-like mud and kicked up a storm of miniature bricks as I shook accumulating layers of cement off my soles. Today was one of those three days of the month where hormones complicate outdoor movement — more specifically, abdominal discomfort and a need to stick relatively close to a bathroom. Still, I was loving the quiet, monotone serenity of the fog and the tickle of mist on my face, and kept extending segments of my run until I ended with 15 miles on a meandering loop through Rancho San Antonio. I didn't bring a camera, or even anything besides a water bottle, but that was all I needed (well, that and two Wet Wipes.)

Getting down to the good stuff
Tonight I compiled and packed my two drop bags for the Iditarod. Handling, and the inevitable sampling, of 25,000 calories of junk food is always enough to make me strongly question my life choices. I did keep the selection pretty simple. A trail mix of dried fruit and salty nuts, a "high-octane rocket fuel" mix of candy, gummy snacks, crackers, peanut butter, and two freeze-dried meals. I have a deeply entrenched fear of running out of heat-making fuel in extreme cold, and I wanted to take the maximum number of calories of foods I know I can actually eat. Because I'm limited to ten pounds per drop, including some drugs and a few other miscellaneous items, 25,000 was what I could manage. I figure this will be my food supply for the last 220 miles and five to seven days. This will be somewhat supplemented by lodge and checkpoint food. It's also quite likely I'll be able to scavenge rejected food as one of the last racers on route, but I feel uncomfortable banking on anything out there (you can't count on anything, so you have to plan for everything.) Anyway, I feel comfortable enough with 25,000. I don't have to carry it from the start, and what isn't needed can be left behind.

The sheer bulk of junk food in most adventure racers' diet is always cause for jokes. It's certainly not about health — really, nothing about trekking the Iditarod Trail has anything to do with health, unless framed in the wider scope of sheer survival. Because it's entirely about survival. High calorie-density foods travel well and pack a long-lasting punch, and sugar burns hot and helps torch fat. It's a crucial component of simply staying warm, not to mention staying on the move for upwards of 20 hours each day. Some people probably figure out how to eat "healthy" out there. I don't know. I've never witnessed it myself. My oversimplified view on the matter is that if your body needs it, it's healthy. Still, putting it all together definitely made me feel vaguely ill. Here's my list:

Somewhat salty rocket fuel mix:
Dried berries, 8 oz 750
Pistachios, 8 oz 1,360
Almonds, 16 oz, 2,550
Chocolate-covered blueberries, 10 oz, 1,260
Dried cranberries, 8 oz, 840
Total: 50 oz, (3.125 lb) 6,760

High-octane rocket fuel mix:
Peanut butter pretzels, 16 oz, 2,100
Snickers bites, 8 oz, 1,140
PB M&Ms, 11.4 oz, 1,760
Peanut M&Ms, 19.2 oz, 2,860
Mini Peanut butter cups, 12 oz, 1,890
Kit Kat minis, 8 oz 1,050
Total, 74.6 oz (4.66 lb) 10,800

Cheese crackers, 12 oz, 1,540
Sour Patch Kids, 14 oz, 1,500
Gummy peaches, 9.5 oz, 820
Gummy bears, 7 oz, 700
Mountain House Noodles and Chicken, 9.5 oz 1,100
Peanut butter, 24 oz, 4,000

Total: 26,500 calories, 200 ounces
- minus 1,200 and 8.5 oz, overweight

25,300 calories. 12 pounds (before packaging.) 

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Week 12, Jan. 27 to Feb. 2

Leah and I spotted this red-shouldered hawk in the Presidio during our Thursday night ride. 
Beat has been engaged in a gear-making frenzy for ... well, for several months now. But this week he really upped the production, sewing several things for me in the process: A custom balaclava with detachable face mask and a cupped waterproof "schnoz" to contain moisture flow, and a pair of primaloft-lined booties to pull over my shoes in the event of extremely windy or cold weather (Frostbite stories from the Arrowhead 135 scared me very much. I wanted some insurance for the possibility of windchills below minus 30.)

This week, I plan to go shopping for my two drop bags, one which will be placed at mile 135 and one at mile 210. As a walker, these locations will be about three days apart, so I need to cram three to four days of supplies in a ten-pound bag. As with my past two Susitna 100s, I plan to prepare pocket-sized baggies of "rocket fuel" — combinations of peanut butter cups, dried fruit, peanut butter pretzels, nuts, and chocolate, ideally in a 60/30/10 carb-fat-protein ratio, with about 2,000 calories to a pound. Supplemented by a bag of gummy snacks, probably five ounces per day, and peanut butter. I may plan a more substantial percentage of my daily calories from peanut butter. I'm still pondering this one. Chewing gets really tedious and eventually painful in cold weather, and although peanut butter becomes brittle when frozen, a 250-calorie block can be devoured in two bites and goes down smooth as it thaws. Peanut butter worked really well for me when I ran low on food during PTL and had to ration while feeling hungry and depleted. Cheap peanut butter has enough sugar to stave off bonks and enough fat to feel full for a while, and is pleasingly calorie dense. Tim Hewitt basically lived off of it during his unsupported trek to Nome in 2013.

That's basically it. I'm going to keep it simple. There will probably be opportunities for a hot meal every one to two days, and I'll pack one Mountain House meal at the start and with each drop. I'm planning to start with less food, but eventually carry about 5,000 calories per day, so probably 15,000 calories in each drop. If I can keep those 5,000 calories to 2.5 pounds or less, that would be ideal. I have a few more days to ponder what to send to myself.

Beyond that, it was a good week of training. More intensive than the numbers make it seem, because those cart tows are actually pretty hard workouts.

Monday, Jan. 27: Cart tow, 1:47, 6.1 miles, 468 feet climbing. I took the cart to Rancho to run on the wide trails of Rogue Valley. Played with some harness positions and got a good hamstring workout.

Tuesday, Jan. 28: Run, 1:13, 7.3 miles, 695 feet climbing. No cart, usual Tuesday route through Monta Vista. I kept it on the slow side because of IT band concerns, but I'm not sure I need to worry about that any more. It hasn't been an issue since Steep Ravine two weeks ago.

Wednesday, Jan. 29: Cart tow, 2:14, 8.3 miles, 34 feet climbing. Tow back from Google on the bike path. For some reason it's harder on the paved path than on trails; probably because there's more friction on pavement. I practiced alternating walking with a shuffle run, and realized that the shuffle running actually isn't all that hard. It's just frustrating, because I'm still "running" a 14-minute-mile and I feel like I should be moving a lot faster than that. However, walking stays in the 17- to 20-minute-mile range, and shuffling does work different muscle groups, so I should plan to make a habit of alternating strides whenever conditions allow.

Thursday, Jan. 30: Mountain bike, 2:28, 21 miles, 2,284 feet climbing. I met Leah in the city for a Thursday night ride. She's been busy and I run too much, and anyway it's been far too long. She's had some ongoing lower back pain that prompted us to cut the ride short in Rodeo Valley. Due to my training log habit, this was perhaps the first time I wore my Garmin on a night ride with Leah, and was surprised to see that cutting our route considerably shorter than normal still netted a reasonably substantial ride. No wonder I'm always so tired after night rides with Leah. Even the truncated route earned us a delicious noodle feast at Ken Ken Ramen.

Friday, Jan. 31: Cart tow, 2:12, 6.7 miles, 703 feet climbing. Went back to Rancho and veered up another trail that I didn't remember being all that steep. It was. According to Strava, some of those grades topped 25 percent. I pulled a muscle in my lower back and I have to admit it's still nagging at me, but I've been doing some mild stretching and plan to wait a few more days before attempting another tow. And no more steep hills.

Saturday, Feb. 1: Run, 8:00, 31.2 miles, 7,036 feet climbing. Big loop through the upper Pescadero drainage. So much fun, and no issues all day, not even sore feet or legs. I wouldn't have been able to say this about so much time on my feet even a year ago, so perhaps I'm in the best "running" shape of my life. Although Alaska is sure to dispel such delusions.

Sunday, Feb. 2: Run, 1:54, 10.3 miles, 1,477 feet climbing. I hoped to put in one last "back-to-back" long weekend by riding 100 miles on my road bike on Sunday, but a rainstorm prompted me to postpone the ride. As usual after the buzz of a day-long effort, I was raring to go and had all sorts of ambitions. Beat talked me down to a moderate run ... for the best, as I was actually quite tired, but otherwise had no problems.

Total: 19:48, 69.9 miles run, 21 miles ride, 12,697 feet climbing

Just under three weeks until go time, and I plan to put in a substantial taper beforehand. This week will probably be a series of shorter runs and a cart-tow or two, and then over the weekend Beat and I hope to take one last shot at finding some snow and a colder place to tow our sleds and test out some of the homemade gear. After that, probably just mellow bike rides and slow runs to keep the legs loose. I'm normally terrible at tapers, but I am terrified of this race and want to be at my physical best as a survival tactic, so hopefully that will be motivation enough to show up at the starting line well-rested. 
Sunday, February 02, 2014

Training rewards

I got out for three, two-hour cart tows this week, and for that I'm proud of myself. The best way to describe these workouts is slow, flat, and tedious — or, more simply, actual workouts, as opposed to the outdoor playing I usually engage in. I don't look forward to them at all, but they have helped me iron out some physical issues — testing out different strides, working my hamstrings without straining them, putting my butt and shoulders into a hard uphill pull rather than my back, and practicing a more efficient shuffle. Last week I averaged 19:50-minute miles on the bike path tow, and this week I improved that to 15:55-minute-miles, simply by trying to work with the cart rather than fight it (also, I suspect the brake pads are getting worn down so perhaps the resistance isn't quite as strong.) Anyway, I despise these workouts, but I also wish I started them sooner.

As feared, run-walking with "Allen" is a rather conspicuous, ridiculous thing to be doing. This photo was taken by a runner who I do not know, but made its way back to me through the network of Google+. At Rancho, an older gentleman asked if there was a baby inside the closed compartment of the cart, and another runner with a thick Italian accent gave me a lecture on how to properly use trekking poles. He actually had very good advice — hook the straps around my wrists and use them at more of an angle, which did give me more of a power push and made it easier to climb steeper slopes. I'll have to remember that the next time I embark on a mountain race in Europe.

At Rancho, I got a little too ambitious on a steep trail on Friday, and came precariously close to overstraining my back. I felt a sharp pinch on the right side of my lower back and froze in my tracks, not sure how to proceed without tearing something. As it was, the grade of that particular spot was 21 percent, and Allen and his 60 pounds of kitty litter was tugging me backward like an angry pet. Finally, I decided to bend my knees more and walk with a hunched profile that helped shift most of the weight to my lower body. I turned around shortly after that. Even with brake resistance, trying to manage the cart down those grades was terrifying.

So it was a rather mundane week of training, and I felt justified rewarding the weekday work with a relaxed weekend outing on a series of trails I've been wanting to link up for some time. Amid all the local bike-splorations I've done in the three years I've lived in California, there's a blank spot on my personal map where bikes are strictly forbidden. I caught rumors of some delicious singletrack in this area, and in truth a lot of mountain bikers poach these trails. But it's not in my personality to break such laws, and honestly I'm just as happy running on bike-free trails. I went on Strava to map out a course and discovered I'd effectively re-created the Saratoga Fatass 50K course ("Fatass" is a nonsensical term for an unofficial, usually self-supported race gathering.) It makes sense that this route already has an official designation — it's a grand tour of everything the Santa Cruz Mountains have to offer — grassy hillsides with sweeping vistas framed by the Pacific, mossy redwood forests, sandstone-dotted ridges, and manzanita tunnels. This single loop on low-traffic trails, 95 percent singletrack, just happens to be exactly fifty kilometers in length (31.2 miles.)

Our friends Harry and Martina joined us for the run starting at Saratoga Gap and Long Ridge. They were going to keep it short and run and out and back, but enticing trails spurred them to stretch out their run all the way to Big Basin.

The Slate Creek Trail in Portola Redwoods State Park had a particularly loamy surface that made it feel like we were descending on foam cushions. I loved this.

The former site of Page Mill, next to one of the few old-growth redwoods they spared due to its spiraling grain.

Butano Ridge. For the entire beautiful Saturday morning and afternoon, we saw almost no one out on these trails — just a couple of hikers and one poaching mountain biker. They're a little off the beaten path, but not that much. If you visit Big Basin Headquarters on a Saturday afternoon, you will encounter many dozens of people on the most popular trails.

The sandstone-studded Basin Trail, with views of the Pacific.

Taking it all in. Our friends expressed some regret about committing to twenty-plus miles of a run they'd planned to keep significantly shorter, but only some.

We split off at Skyline to the Sea Trail, which Beat and I followed back up the ridge to Saratoga Gap. It was an eight-hour run with seven hours of moving time, about 7,000 feet of climbing, carrying all of our food and water for the day ... and it felt really relaxed and just enjoyable the entire time. There's something to be said about trying to get into race shape by building endurance — the challenge is in the training, the test is in the race, but the rewards are days like this — an adventure run with friends, covering a lot of ground and having fun on new trails.

And we caught a nice sunset on the way back to Big Basin to pick up Harry and Martina. The link to the Strava route is here. If you're a trail runner in the Bay Area, seriously, download this track and head out ... today if possible. It's a fantastic run. And what a way to spend Super Bowl Sunday!

I had a road century all mapped out for my Sunday outing — in my opinion, Super Bowl Sunday is the best day of the year to embark on a long road ride. However, the forecast now calls for 90 percent chance of rain all day — for which I am thrilled — but dusty pavement and new rain slick and road bikes on routes with 11,000 feet of descending just don't mix. So for now I'm postponing the ride and will hopefully embark on a muddy rain run instead. I hope it rains a lot. We need it.