Monday, February 17, 2014

Perfect bike for the Whites

People collect things — stamps, pennies, books, bottles of wine, bobble-head dolls. Beat, love him, likes to collect bicycles. Every time he starts musing about potential acquisitions, I tease him about enjoying the process of buying and building bikes more than actually riding bikes, when I'm almost exactly the opposite — love riding bikes, but wish they could magically fix themselves and maybe go live somewhere else when I'm not using them. He always fires back that I, the primary cyclist in this relationship, benefit the most from his collections — to which I can only agree. Since I moved to California in 2011, I've sold or given away all of my previously owned bicycles save for one (my commuter fixie). Yet, thanks to Beat, I enjoy regular rides on a wonderful titanium soft-tail mountain bike, an S-Works Specialized Roubaix, a carbon Calfee road bike, an aluminum Fatback, and now a expedition titanium fat bike that I *will* plan a proper winter expedition for, someday soon. Beat joked that I've commandeered all of the bikes and he needed one that was uniquely his own, a geared mountain bike. I put up resistance because, well, so many bikes (and he owns a trainer franken-bike, his own commuter fixie, and a single-speed mountain bike that I never borrow.)

"You don't even like mountain biking," I argued facetiously, to which Beat countered, "so?"

I lost this argument in grand fashion when Mike Curiak, who sold us the expedition fat bike, put another "Snoots" up for sale — a Moots softtail fat bike with an Action Tech Pro Shock suspension fork — kind of an old-school, lightweight full-suspension set-up for massive wheels. The kicker was this fat bike also came with a second set of 29" standard mountain bike wheels with hubs wide enough to accommodate a quick switch. With those wheels, it's very much like my own Mooto-X YBB. "It's a fat bike and a mountain bike," Beat argued, so it met the criteria he set for yet another bike purchase. Plus, as a bicycle collector, he is also a huge fan of Curiak's design aesthetic.

So, now this bike lives with us as well. I initially tried to keep my distance because this is Beat's bike. However, we recently discussed which bike I'm going to take to Alaska, to ride post-ITI and also to race in the White Mountains 100. I didn't want to bring Expedition Snoots on this particular trip because of its value, and also because it's not necessarily the best bike for a "short" race like the White Mountains. But after beginning to prep the Fatback for the trip, Beat suggested maybe I would enjoy all of the awesome features of the latest acquisition. First I had to make sure I was comfortable riding it.

Today we set out with Liehann for a three-hour fat bike tour on the new Moots, the Expedition Snoots, and Fatty Fatback. My rash, while having improved markedly in the past few days, is still irritated enough to make sitting in saddles and turning pedals unpleasant. Without getting too graphic, I'll just say that it's similar to having serious chaffing in all of the wrong places. I was stewing in misery about this for the entire 90-minute climb to the top of Black Mountain, mostly ignoring Beat's cheerful recommendations to try to dropper seatpost and questions about the handling.

The final pitch to the peak is steep enough that I always feel like I might tip over backward if I pull too hard, and I have to keep my butt planted in the saddle to maintain traction. Still, by that point today I was done with saddles — and anyway, I wanted to put Beat's Moots to a test. Standing up and leaning far over the handlebars, I purposefully pedaled in the loose gravel off to the side to mimic a steep climb on soft snow. Amazingly, the Surly Nate tire dug in, and the low gearing allowed me to spin a comfortable cadence while maintaining traction, even with the rear wheel unweighted. I was an instant fan.

The long, rolling descent was increasingly more fun. The Moots has similar comfort, agility and responsiveness as my YBB, along with the confidence-inspiring stability and bouncy fun of fat tires. Standing out of the saddle more frequently also went a long way in improving my mood. With Beat's blessing, we're going to pack up this bike for the trip north, and I am *really* looking forward to riding it in the White Mountains. The prospect of this gives me glimmers of carefree excitement amid the weighty dread I feel about the Iditarod Trail Invitational.

This dread is a good thing — it's what makes these endeavors so rewarding — but, damn, it sure makes me feel icky in the week leading up to the challenge. Both Beat and I have been a bit moody this week with our various points of panic — for Beat, it seems to be mainly gear and food planning. For me, it's obsession about my greatest fear out on the trail: Bad ice and open water. Alaska was so warm for most of January that a lot of waterways opened up, and little new snow has arrived to fill in the cracks. Although there's been decent freeze-up for the past two weeks, more warm weather is forecasted for next weekend, with the horrific prospect of "ice pellets and rain, 37F" in the Susitna Valley and on up into the Alaska Range from Saturday until at least Tuesday. Of course it's at least a week out and the weather could be something completely different — but we have to mentally prepare for what I consider the most challenging weather condition. The misery of perpetual wetness at near-freezing temperatures with gear we can't afford to soak — such things cannot be anticipated with anything but dread. And of course, I'm even more terrified of the prospect of new overflow, open leads and bad ice caused by another long stretch of above-freezing weather. All we can do is maintain flexibility, make the right decisions for ourselves, and hope for the best. But, damn, what can I say? I'm looking forward to the White Mountains 100.

As for the rash, I did see my doctor and he believes it's eczema caused by some sort of allergic reaction. It could still be a lot of things, but he did prescribe a corticosteroid cream that has been helpful in minimizing flare-ups and reducing symptoms. I opted out of Prednisone since I am already amped up with dread this week, and don't need the added insomnia from steroids. But if this doesn't clear up completely in the next few days, I'm probably going to kick myself for not insisting on drugs. The next step is to visit an allergist and see if we can pinpoint a cause. Hopefully it's not an autoimmune reaction that will only continue to worsen over time. But for now, the top concern is staying safe and as dry as possible starting next week. I am excited for this adventure — but scared, viscerally scared, which is the very part of myself I set out to overcome in such endeavors. With some luck, we'll prevail.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Week 13, Feb. 3 to 9

I didn't take my camera out much this week, so instead I'm posting a blog archive photo of Brij Potnis riding the soft trail out of Puntilla Lake during the 2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational. For many layered reasons, this sparkling, zero-degree day was one of the best days of my life on the endurance racing spectrum — only to be immediately followed by one of the worst nights of my life. Funny how these endeavors work that way. It amazes me that this was six years ago; so much about that week remains fresh in my memory, swirling through my subconscious as though it just happened.

I'm working on building up stoke as the pre-race jitters really set in. Not helping this matter is an exasperating hiccup in my health that I can't easily solve. I blogged a couple of weeks ago about a rash and congestion that I suspected were caused by allergies. The symptoms went away for about ten days, but came flaring back with a vengeance last Thursday. The symptoms are not debilitating, just uncomfortable and energy-sapping. It puts me in a funk, and the issue is complicated not just from uncertainty about what I might be allergic to, but not knowing if these are even allergies. It could be a reaction to stress, or hormones, or an infection, or who knows? I'm going to see my general practitioner on Thursday with the hope of at least ruling out some possibilities, or scoring an effective drug in time for our flight to Alaska next week. I really don't want to have to deal with this issue out on the trail, but then again, maybe by then I'll have enough to worry about that it won't even make my top five list of concerns.

That said, the mystery rash is really boosting my resolve to rest a lot during the taper, because at its worst, it hurts to move at all. Despite this, last week's training went okay, although I hoped to put in one last long effort on Sunday and did not.

Monday, Feb. 4: Road bike, 1:25, 18.8 miles, 1,980 feet climbing. Redwood Gulch loop. I had ambitions to put in a longer ride and admit I cut it short simply because I was distracted and couldn't muster the enthusiasm for three hours in the saddle. I am quite bad at training when it comes to doing things I don't feel like doing. This is evident in the fact I didn't put in any cart-tows this week. I wish I had; we were planning a big sled-dragging weekend at this point and thought I could put it off. Sigh.

Tuesday, Feb. 5: Run, 1:06, 7.6 miles, 670 feet climbing. Felt upbeat for my Tuesday "lunch hour run" and ran fast, for me at least. It's rare I put in a trail run that comes in under nine-minute-mile average. Sadly, this would be the last I felt good all week; I should have put in that long ride on Monday while I had the energy.

Wednesday, Feb. 6: Road bike, 1:34, 17.8 miles, 2,656 feet climbing. Montebello climb. Felt sluggish, and assumed it was PMS.

Thursday, Feb. 7: Run, 2:46, 15.2 miles, 2,955 feet climbing. A rash flare-up and general ickiness showed up with my period; it was not a happy day. I hoped to put in a moderate run, but preemptively cut it short due to the health woes. Still, I was enjoying the foggy, wet conditions, and running —especially steep hill climbing — is a good distraction from most anything else. After a few miles, I found a stride that allowed me to continue comfortably with a couple of stops.

Friday, Feb. 8: Run, 1:05, 6.3 miles, 1,079 feet climbing. Wildcat loop. I nearly killed this run just fifty meters from the parking lot at Rancho, because the rash had really flared up on this day and made it feel like I had shingles on my lower body. Maybe it is shingles? I don't want to think about it. I've really spent too much time on Web MD this week. But, like Thursday, after getting the legs moving a bit, the tightness subsided and I did not feel too uncomfortable during the run.

Saturday, Feb. 9: Sled drag, 4:48, 12 miles, 1,327 feet climbing. The rainy outing in Yosemite National Park. After an inch of rain saturated already wet snow, this was like snowshoeing through a Slurpee. Although our sleds were gliding well, it was still really hard work wading through that thick slush. At times during the drive to Yosemite, my discomfort made me feel downright nauseated. Still, I felt a lot better once we got out into that cold air and started working hard, so I can't say my rash impacted my pace on this outing. However, I find sled-drag pace to be disheartening in general, especially when I apply perceived effort to the mileage gained. If I ran on trails for five hours it would be easier and I'd cover at least twice as much ground, but, alas — that's not what I'm doing. I can't even conceive how I'm going to manage the physical strain of the ITI on foot — which, like it was six years ago with the bike, is one of its main appeals.

Sunday, Feb 10: Run, 0:57, 5.7 miles, 587 feet climbing. Again I was not feeling good, but joined Beat for a short run. My pep for running just continued to go downhill this week, but I'm hoping for the best. At least it's taper time now.

Total: 13:42,  46.8 miles run, 36.6 miles ride, 11,254 feet climbing
Monday, February 10, 2014

If it's not snaining, it's not training

An atmospheric river flowed into northern California with much-welcome precipitation, and finally some snow in the Sierras. Badger Pass in Yosemite National Park received a foot of new powder over bare ground. We've been waiting for quick-access snow for weeks now, so Beat, Steve, and I made plans for an sub-24-hour overnighter to Glacier Point. Forecasts predicted heavy precipitation with a freezing level at about 6,000 feet, which was iffy, but I remained optimistic. "It could be warm and wet in Alaska, too. We already got some good cold-weather training in Fairbanks, and this will give us the other end of the spectrum."

Of course, I expected (hoped for) nuking snow, but when we arrived at the ski hut in the late afternoon, it was raining. And not just a misty drizzle — it was raining hard, like a tropical downpour. Temperatures hovered in the mid-30s but the new and mostly unconsolidated snowpack was already fading fast. I made only light adjustments to my sled when I should have been wrapping the thing in a garbage bag, and insisted on not wearing shell pants because "When it's this wet, you're going to get wet. Everything's going to get wet. There's no escaping it."

Onward we slogged, hoping the gradually climbing route would bring us to snow level. Steve and Beat pressed ahead into the gray sheets of rain as I ambled along in my snowshoes, lost in happy nostalgia about similar outings during my Juneau days. Ah, those were the days ... satin curtains of fog tumbling down the mountains, the duotone wash of green and gray, the slosh of slush underfoot, the incessant prattle of rain on a Gortex hood. Every mile or so, Beat and Steve would stop to wait for me and we'd all ask the inevitable question, "Are we actually planning on camping in this?"

"I used to go camping all the time before I moved to Juneau," I told them, "And lost that habit there, sadly, but for good reason."

One Juneau habit I remembered was wet layering. "My limit in weather like this is five to six hours before I start getting cold. Then I either have to change clothes, or add layers, until those too are wet. Yeah. In five years, I never figured out a better solution."

After six miles in two and a half hours, we had climbed to 7,500 feet and the rain was only beginning to shift into thick snain — a sort of blended-drink mix of chunky slush and larger droplets of rain that somehow feels even wetter than plain rain. By then, we had decided that the only real Alaska training we were going to get here was an exercise in enduring extreme misery. We'd planned to spend upwards of twelve hours hanging out in camp — cooking, practicing snow-melting, and generally enjoying ourselves because the reason we do this stuff is mainly for fun. Steve discovered his down coat was drenched, and Beat and I had also saturated various pieces of gear that we failed to move inside of dry bags, including my only pair of warm mittens. So there wasn't a feasible way to stay comfortable outside while not moving, and twelve hours inside of a damp sleeping bag beneath a water-resistant bivy sack did not bode well for not getting up in the middle of the night for a hypothermic hike out. And although it was good to learn the weaknesses in our gear systems, we had no need to practice camping in a deluge. If it really ever rained this hard in Alaska, we would not stop moving until we reached shelter, not unless we were in dire straits. It's one of those weather conditions in which it is nearly always more difficult and dangerous to stop than it is to keep moving.

We turned around, and were back in Mariposa for Mexican food and live music by 9 p.m. Ah, that's better. Steve recently returned from racing the Arrowhead 135 in Minnesota, one of the coldest years yet for that race. He commented, "I'd take 30 below over this any day." I think Juneau Jill would agree. As for current Jill, I'm torn. Both conditions are very difficult, but 35 above, even when accompanied by much wetness, does contain a greater margin for error. 35 below demands the utmost vigilance to keep all systems working well, but at the same time it's easier to manage in terms of stability. Once you find a system that works for you, you don't have to change much about it over the long term. But if it rains and keeps raining, over time you either have to add more sacrificial layers over your saturated clothing, or move continuously faster.

We're still bracing ourselves for difficult scenarios in Alaska. Right now, the Iditarod Dog Sled Race is considering moving the start of the race north to Fairbanks, then following the original serum run route over the Chena, Tenana, and Yukon Rivers. They're considering this because there's so little snow in the Dalzell Gorge that it may be impossible for them to build a trail at all (snow bridges are built to cover open leads in the creek), and there remains little to no snow cover in both the Susitna River Valley, and the other side of the range across the Farewell Burn. The last time the Iditarod Dog Sled Race moved north, in 2003, Alaska Ultrasport followed suit and held a 350-mile race from Fairbanks to Galena that was almost entirely on rivers. I lied awake last night stressing about this, because to be honest I am not terribly interested in walking 350 miles of wide-open river. The appeal of participating in this race on foot was to experience these well-remembered landscapes that I love in a new way. I love the variety of the Iditarod Trail, the chance to cross the Alaska Range, the sparse moonscapes and Christmas-card forests. I eventually arrived at the decision that if it's a serum run year, I would still like to participate in the short race, but I would do it on a bike. Then I realized that I don't have a proper set of boots, don't have adequately tested gear, don't have any experience with my new snow bike and too little bike training behind me this winter. As much as I'd love to bike either route, I am not prepared, not this year.

Today, the ITI race organizers announced that trail conditions still look doable to start the human-powered race in Knik. But without the support of Iditarod trailbreakers, there would be fewer trail markings and likely no trail over Rainy Pass, save for what Bill and Rob could put in themselves. Still, this sounds like an adventure and I'd be much more excited about this possibility, especially as a participant on foot. There are likely to be lots of unique challenges if there's no significant snowfall between now and then — technical travel on ice that will necessitate more foot gear and likely exacerbate the already inevitable problem of hurty, hurty feet. Also likely are open water crossings that will have to be navigated while carrying a sled whether it's 30 above or 30 below, the latter necessitating utmost precaution. Long sled drags on dirt and tussocks will be more difficult than snow due to high friction and uneven terrain, and also threaten to break sleds and pound body parts. And, if the Dalzell Gorge proves impassable, a long detour around Hell's Gate would add 40 miles — an entire day — to the trek, through an area that is notorious for glare ice and overflow.

But it's all part of the adventure, which is what we signed up for. Like all things of this sort, "it is what it is," and flexibility and adapting on the move are the most useful skills/attitudes to cultivate. Come what may, I am filled with dread and likely will be for the next two weeks. Just like the good ol' Juneau days. :-)