Monday, April 07, 2014

Suddenly spring

 Spring is my favorite time of year in California. In this region, spring actually spans February and March; by April it's the cusp of summer, with its heat and parched hills, face-stalking flies, dusty trails, stinging nettle and robust poison oak. But for now it is still spring, and returning from white winter to hills splashed in green has been refreshing.

 Less refreshing is re-acclimating to 80-degree temperatures, discovering that SPF 15 is no longer going to cut it, and sweaty chamois. But, Alaska adventures are over and it's time to look forward to the summer projects, put in more productive screen time, and get back out there in anticipation of the rest of 2014. I'll write soon about my summer plans, but let's just say there is a lot of mountain biking *and* mountain running in my near future. This is to be the year of "forever pace," a grand experiment and one that I'm pretty excited about.

 Trying to pull myself out of White Mountains 100 and travel fatigue resulted in slow-paced plods on Thursday and Friday, but by Saturday both Beat and I were feeling more snappy and rallied for a four-hour mountain bike ride with Liehann. This was Beat's longest effort since he returned from Nome two weeks ago (was it really that recently? It feels like months at this point.) He rode the same bike I used in the White Mountains, re-fitted with 29" wheels. Beat purchased the soft-tail Moots as a mountain bike that just happened to be convertible to a fat bike, and I think this was his longest ride so far on the (decidedly slimmer) beast. He seemed pleased with the handling and agility. It is a great bike.

 Enjoying the spoils of snow biking in sunny California.

 Thirty-five miles and 5,200 feet of climbing in the "heat" admittedly felt tougher than I expected, but saddle time is my current goal, so I joined Liehann for his long ride on Sunday. We planned an 80-mile loop through Big Basin and Pescadero state parks. The winter here was exceptionally dry, but when Beat left Alaska, he took all the bad weather that had been shadowing him for two weeks and brought it home — a whole week of rain. I just missed it, bringing Alaska's unseasonably blue skies and warmth home with me, to enjoy the newly lush trails and hillsides after green-up.

It seemed cooler on the move than it was. Our lunch break in the sun quickly migrated to a lunch break in the shade, huddled in a thin sliver of a fir tree shadow — which was humorous given we were riding through Big Basin Redwoods State Park, offering a lot of places to escape the sun just below the dry and exposed ridge. For lunch I had a sad bread-and-cheese "sandwich" that I cobbled together from a relatively empty fridge in the morning. That's when Liehann pulled out an entire pound of sliced turkey and offered to share. That's an important sign of a good bike partner — the ability to complete a sandwich.

 Blasting down Gazos Creek fireroad. Photos can't really illustrate it, but this is pretty much the best descent ever, at least for a fireroad. Fast and flowing with swooping turns, steep drops, the filtered sunlight of huge redwood trees, cool shade, moss and ferns, gurgling creeks and chirpy birds to complete the tropical rainforest feel of the place. The climb back up Pescadero is equally steep, equally redwoody, and decidedly less sublime. I felt more tired and taxed than I did at any point during the White Mountains 100. But if I stopped my internal whining long enough to consider it, I realized that my legs still felt plenty strong, the head-boiling sensation would fade once acclimation kicked in, and eighty miles is really not so far. It was a big weekend — 115 miles and some 15,000 feet of climbing all told, but not a big deal. In both 2012 and 2013, I returned from Alaska feeling physically downtrodden, a mental state that carried into rough-edged summers. I'm experimenting with making this season different simply by switching up my attitude. We'll see how it plays out, but it's my new mantra: "not a big deal." No need to worry about limits if there are none.

Beat keeps asking about my Iditarod race report. I haven't started it. I'm spending my days with newspaper projects and finishing up the book about Tim Hewitt, as well as working on my book proposal for Ann Trason. With the Iditarod story, I had this idea to spend a bit more time on the writing, polish more than usual, and integrate text and photos in a more dynamic way than the blog allows. Basically, I want to make a small digital book out of it. Beat thinks there might not be enough material there, but I want to have fun with the project — after all, what's the point of writing about your own adventures if you can't have fun with the writing as well?

Since I struggle so much with finishing a full book, I'm considering the prospect of "micro-publishing" to keep the salmon wheel turning. Other authors have tried this with variable success, some slim to none, but it seems worth a shot. I recently did my taxes, and although my books are dwarfed by other sources of income, it continues to surprise me how many royalties they still bring in. This blog, which I spend hours and hours and hours on (for fun; it's my relaxation outlet) pulls in about $1,000 a year through Google Ads. The books, which I spent a few weeks writing years ago and haven't done much with since, still make considerably more than that. It's all chump change in the Silicon Valley, but it's a start. Something I really need to figure out this year, in addition to finding my forever pace, is what I really want to do as a writer/editor/publisher. Taxes make it starkly clear which efforts "pay off" and which ones really are just a hobby. I've never been one to place all or even the majority of my self worth in the things other people are willing to pay me to do, but splashes of honesty are occasionally needed when the things I've been so dedicated to just aren't working. With that said, I maintain loyalty to the downtrodden newspaper industry, and I believe even more firmly in books. 
Sunday, April 06, 2014

Goodbye, Alaska, and thanks

The list of things to do on Monday and Tuesday was long, as it often is when dismantling a six-week trip that involves piles of winter gear. I hardly slept on Sunday night after the White Mountains 100, too amped up and dehydrated, gasping to push more oxygen into my thickened blood. Monday's agenda included driving seven hours from Fairbanks to Anchorage — a road trip, I discovered, that becomes decidedly less fun when sleep-deprived and operating under the reality that the adventure is behind me rather than ahead. The droopy eyes set in around Healy, and I decided a break was in order.

The tiny winter visitor's center at Denali National Park was crammed with a busload of tourists. An Asian woman demanded a larger plastic bag to cover the calendar she just purchased, and the ranger seemed frazzled as she rifled around for something to appease her. The scene did have a weird kind of frenzy to it, enough to spark discomfort. I considered turning around and leaving the national park, but the ranger kindly waved me over to ask if I needed anything. "I'm curious if the trail along the park road is packed enough for a bicycle?" I asked. "Oh, and I need to pay the entry fee."

"The road is plowed," she said, "all the way out to Savage River." She pushed a map toward me. "And there's no entry fee in the winter; we're just hoping to get more people out there."

Fifteen miles out the road, the north wind was the only source of sound, moaning softly as it rushed across the wide valley. The plowed part of the park road had been precariously icy for a car, and I could see the surface beyond the gate was pretty much a broken sheet of glare ice on muddy gravel. This didn't seem promising for a ride, but I still pulled the bike out of the back seat, only to discover the front tire was completely flat. I used my little hand pump to push test air back into it; after three minutes, it had enough volume to at least notice, but after three more, it was losing air again. "Argh, bikes," I grumbled, too lazy to fix the flat. I crammed the mechanical nuisance back into the car and pulled on microspikes instead.

Running was humorous; I haven't done much of that in the past few weeks as it is, and less than 24 hours after finishing a hundred-mile fat bike race, any "running" I attempted was more like a pained shuffle on stiff legs. I walked frequently. I wasn't even looking for a workout, far from it, I knew rest was in order. But I also knew I was in Denali National Park, out the road in late March with no one else around, and this was a rare visiting opportunity. Even if the distance I could cover on my tired legs with no bike was minuscule, what I'd see would be exponentially richer than anything seen while driving sleepy in a rental car.

So I ran, limply, letting the north wind push my body into a side-to-side stagger, hardly taking my gaze off the mountains. An ice sheen over the snow glistened in the low light of afternoon, and I scanned the nearest mountains for friendly routes up to the ridge. When I spotted one, I grumbled to myself about sending my snowshoes home in the mail. But then again, a climb like that would take hours. I did not have hours. I barely even had minutes, but I felt greedy and wanted it all — for Beat to come back and for the adventure to continue ... for spring and break-up to somehow hold off a little longer ... for Alaska to not leave me, even if it had to be the other way around.

Denali National Park granted me that wish, a final beautiful memory to hold onto as I jetted back to real life and the projects that I looked forward to working on, the dry trails and mountain biking that I admit I missed, the summer adventures that I'm excited to prepare for, and of course Beat, who I missed terribly in a way that was different than when he was simply out walking the Iditarod Trail. It was time to go home. Return was a good thing, but Denali gave me the gift of holding on for a few moments longer.

I'm incredibly grateful for the privilege I had to journey through Alaska for nearly six weeks. It wouldn't have been possible without the generosity and awesomeness of friends who I owe many thanks and maybe guided bike vacations in California next time you want to escape Alaska in the winter:

Dan and Amy in Anchorage. Dan and Amy are amazing. They graciously put up with Beat and me floating in and out of their home for the better part of six weeks, using their gear room as our personal base camp, while they stored piles of stuff, baked cookies and delicious dinners, and made more airport trips than I can count. Thanks Dan and Amy; hopefully Beat and I can at least partially return the favor someday soon.

Jill in Anchorage. Jill encouraged me to join her for bike adventures and put up with my slowness shortly after I returned from McGrath. Thanks for getting me back out there!

Dave and Andrea in Willow. Spending a few days with Dave Johnston, eating "recovery" steak and sandwich dinners with him, and listening to his ITI stories was a highlight of the trip; biking to intriguing places in the region was a nice bonus.

Libby and Geoff in Juneau. I appreciate that Libby and Geoff are willing to open their "flophouse" for wayward friends like myself. It's fun chatting about the latest Juneau political gossip and watching bad reality TV. Seeing their kids significantly older is always kind of weird, but fun. They grow up so fast.

Cecile in Juneau. It was Cecile's birthday and she hosted a big breakfast for friends that I just happened to be invited to because I showed up at a group run that day. I really enjoyed meeting a number of Juneau's quirky runners; I was always on the periphery of the running community when I lived in Juneau but never involved, so it was fun to finally get to know everyone better.

Brian in Juneau. Brian has long been a good friend and always reliable for a fun night on the town. We went to see a play and enjoyed a couple of tasty dinners.

Shana in Nome. Beat and I were complete strangers to her when Shana offered to host us at her home. She and I enjoyed late nights, staying up until the small hours and chatting like old friends. The three of us hiked up Anvil Mountain together the day after Beat finished the ITI. I really enjoyed getting to know Shana and hope to visit again soon. Nome is a fantastic place; you'd never really know it unless you went there yourself.

Phil and Sarah in Nome. Phil no doubt had major Iditarod fatigue after riding the route himself in twelve days, and then hosting or greeting a number of ITI bikers and walkers that followed. Phil let me borrow his bike for a day, and Sarah prepared a delicious dinner for everyone after Tim and Loreen finished.

Craig and Amity in Butte. Craig and Amity are two friends from college that have been there for me since the very beginning. They hosted my very first Susitna 100 effort in 2006, and they're still there for a friendly stopover in a beautiful setting near the Matanuska River.

Corrine and Eric in Fairbanks. I met Corrine and Eric through the White Mountains network, and like everyone I have met through that network, are fun and generous. Corrine and Eric skied the White Mountains 100 together this year. It was their first 100-mile ski, and they finished in 31 hours. I didn't have a chance to see them after they finished, and I regret that we couldn't swap stories. But I enjoyed getting to know them better.

Joel and Erica in Fairbanks. Joel and Erica treated me to a shakedown ride before the race and a big lunch after the race.

Beat and me on top of Anvil Mountain. Special big thanks to him. :)
And of course all the others who contributed to the journey — those involved with the Iditarod Trail Invitational: Bill and Kathi, Rich at Yentna Station, Cindi on the Yentna River, Cindy in Skwentna, Rob in Rohn, the Petruskas in Nikolai, Peter and Tracy in McGrath, Wilco the Dutch filmmaker. Thanks to Ed in Fairbanks along with all the volunteers of the White Mountains 100. And many others — lots of awesome people in Alaska. I'm fairly introverted and sometimes have difficulty connecting with people, but there's something about those northern latitudes that have helped me meet many kindred spirits. Thank you, everyone.  
Thursday, April 03, 2014

White Mountains, again

Find the tiny biker in the big wilderness
Six weeks in Alaska and a weariness had settled into the journey, like a bungee cord held taut for too long. I knew once I let go I was going to fall limp to the floor, sun-faded and cracked from weeks of freeze and thaw. My stretch marks spread across the state — over the streets of downtown Anchorage, up the Yentna River to the sun-kissed summit of Rainy Pass, Interior swamps and hard-frozen lakes, the magical corridor of the Kuskokwim River, McGrath, Anchorage again, Turnagain Pass and the Placer River Valley, deep snow in Denali State Park and Talkeetna, Willow, a puddle-jump flight into Cordova and Yakutat, onto gray and misty Juneau, Douglas Island, the wet pavement of Thane Road and wind-blasted ridge of Thunder Mountain, then high over 1,500 miles of empty wilderness to Alaska’s gold coast, Nome, the frozen sea, Cold War relics on Anvil Mountain, and back to the streets of downtown Anchorage. After all of that, it was time to turn north for the last leg — Fairbanks and the White Mountains 100.

 The White Mountains 100 felt a little like something carelessly tacked on at the last minute, although I'd been planning to race it since I found out I "won" the entry lottery last October. I did enter that lottery, even though I knew that at best I'd be stale (if not injured) after the 350-mile march to McGrath, and even though I knew it meant an extra week in Alaska after Beat needed to return to California. But how could I not enter the White Mountains 100? It's difficult to describe why it's is the best race ever, but it really is. Fun community, superb organization, dedicated volunteers ("I can't get rid of them," race director Ed Plumb said of those that kept coming back. "It's harder to volunteer for this race than it is to race it.") And the course is sublime — a hundred-mile loop through an Interior Alaska mountain range that really does feel far away from anything, but just happens to contain stellar trails courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management. It fosters the kind of experiences that draw a person back again and again, hoping to recapture some of the magic. It felt greedy in every way to remain in Alaska to race the White Mountains a fourth time, but I was grateful for the opportunity.

Sunday morning dawned clear and frosty, about 5 degrees and completely calm on the often windy Wickersham Dome. I felt strangely at ease as I stepped out of my car and looked out over the rounded hills, bristling with pipe-cleaner spruce trees and drenched in pink light. The White Mountains have become a familiar place, more like a distant friend rather than a sinister wilderness filled with things that could kill me (the place is still filled with things that could kill me, but it's funny how familiarity breeds comfort.) I had no expectations for race performance, having spent the winter training for a week on my feet dragging a sled 350 miles to McGrath, and being four weeks off of doing just that. I joked that slogging was all I was good for this season, and the only way I'd do well in the race is if it turned out to be a "bike push" year. All pre-race indications pointed to the opposite. Lack of new snow, warm daytime temperatures, and cold nighttime temperatures promised well-packed, fast trails.

Late March at Latitude 64 means nearly 14 hours of daylight, and the sun was already high in the sky when the field of 65 took off at 8 a.m. I started near the back and spent the first mile riding beside faster runners — Joe Grant, who was carrying a pack that looked to be about the size and weight of the vest I wear on six-mile trail runs near my home in California, and Houston Laws, a cheerful young guy from Juneau who I met a few weeks earlier. I have to admit that I sort of envied the runners. That's also tough for me to explain. I love riding bikes, I'm built to ride bikes, and this year's course conditions all but promised to be the best yet for bikes. But there's something raw and compelling about setting out to cover a hundred miles on foot. You all but assure yourself a full spectrum of emotions and experience, not to mention the time to fully soak in the vast landscape. Someday I'd like to come back and run this course. I hope when it's my chance to do it, I enjoy an equally runnable year. This race could actually work quite well as a "fast" 100-mile course for a runner like me. But it could just as easily be a sled-and-snowshoe year, and take 48 hours.

 But I digress, because yay bikes! Beat's awesome Moots machine floated over the hardpacked trails, maintained great traction on the climbs and confidence-inducing suspension down the mogul-rippled descents. I must have been pedaling the thing because last I checked no one installed a motor, but the burnt spruce forests flashed by, and in what seemed like no time at all I reached checkpoint one, which is something like 17 miles into the race. Seventeen miles! In the Iditarod Trail Invitational, seventeen miles was more than a third of a very long and hard day. I munched on some Oreos and left the checkpoint with Max Kaufman and Amber Bethe, who turned out to be the men's ski and women's bike winners in this race. Wow, I was feeling fast!

  Amber stayed in my sights until the Cache Mountain cabin, which is 39 miles into the race. Thirty nine! I couldn't believe I was there already. It felt early in the day, and it probably was (I wear a GPS watch but rarely use it to actually track the time.) I had no concept of how fast we were really moving, and assumed it was mid-afternoon, as it usually is by the time I arrive at Cache Mountain (it was actually around 11:45 a.m.) Amber left quickly and I re-upped my water bladder and mulled the baked potato with chili that I promised myself I wouldn't eat. ("But it sounds so tasty. And I feel great. But it's a hot day. And Cache Mountain Divide is a long, strenuous climb, and heavy food in the stomach is a bad idea.") I settled on two cookies and checked out something like five minutes later, which is just nutty for checkpoints as nice and inviting as White Mountains cabins. But it was a beautiful day and there was still much awesome riding to be had.

 I rode much of the climb with a woman from Anchorage, Laurel Brady. We were nearing a half century on fat bikes loaded with a decent amount of gear, and my legs were finally starting to feel the burn. The early part of the climb is more gradual, and Laurel easily outpaced me on that section. Every time I pushed the pace to keep up with her, sharp pains grabbed my left knee and my legs became exponentially heavier. But if I backed off just a little, back to my own pace, the knee settled in and the pedaling felt natural again. I suppose if you train for long-distance endurance and a "forever pace," that's exactly what you'll have — one pace. If you want the speed it up, you need to train at something faster once in a while. Who knew?

 But the truth is, I am blissfully content at forever pace. It's one thing to feel fast, and another to feel like you can propel yourself enormous distances without pain or fatigue. I guess I'm more of an exception in the racing crowd, but it must be obvious by now that I'd choose the latter over the former.

As Laurel and I crested the sun-drenched summit of Cache Mountain Divide, I was entering a near perfect flow state. Miles were unraveling behind me and stunning mountains were unfolding before me, and I was an entity beyond myself, almost void of self-consciousness, a cyclist and only a cyclist, pedaling into a place of pure joy.

 Flow state can only persist when the mind is completely calm, which isn't always possible amid the inherently scary surroundings of Alaska backcountry still locked in winter conditions. Still, even the scary sections were known, and the weather was unbelievably friendly. There was no wind on the ice lakes, and only the thinnest film of standing water. Even though I know these "lakes" are simply a creek bed that fills with layers of overflow, the cracks and groans in the breakable top layer make my heart flutter every time.

 I brought microspikes to wear on my boots so I could walk the ice sections. The ice lakes went on for about a mile and a half, and I even ran a bit because I was feeling good. Of course, Laurel came fearlessly riding by, expressing disbelief that I did not have studded tires (I wanted to get all old-timey on her ... "Back in my day, fat bike tires didn't even have tread, let alone studs, and there was only one to choose from, way back in 2007.") Of course, she was riding glare ice and couldn't slow down to wait for my response.

 The descent off Cache Mountain Divide is pretty much always a vat of mashed potatoes. This year was better but not an exception, and the lead pack had ripped up the trail enough to leave wheel-throwing ruts. Just like previous years, I had a couple of spectacular crashes, tearing down the trail at 25 mph, spotting a deep rut, swerving to avoid it, catching the edge of a tire and launching into the air with hope in my heart that my body would find the cushion of a snow bank and not a tree. Both times I did land in a soft bank and got up laughing. This is why I prefer snow biking — even crashing is fun.

 After the initial steep grades off the Divide, the trail follows a rolling descent beside craggy limestone cliffs.

 It's a little like miniature Alps. In past years of the White Mountains 100, the sun was already starting to set by the time I reached this section of the course. With the glaring mid-day light and blue skies, I was beginning to understand just how fast these trails were carrying me this year.

Coasting down the canyon, eating bagel chips out of my "gas tank" top tube bag, and soaking in some rays. At Windy Gap, mile 62, it still felt ridiculously early in the day and I was almost too full for the famous meatball soup that they serve at that checkpoint. But I ate a little because it's the kind of indulgence I just can't let myself pass up. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I don't even think the meatball soup is all that good. It's just frozen meatballs in broth with plain white rice. But in 2010, the first running of this race, I arrived at Windy Gap at dusk, feeling shattered after a hard push up the Divide, followed by a terrifying crossing the ice lakes without microspikes through three to six inches of standing water on top of glare ice, a fierce crosswind blowing my bike like a sail, and temperatures around 10 below. A volunteer, Dea, who has since become a friend, handed me a Styrofoam bowl with thin soup and three meatballs. I slurped it up while it was still too hot to swallow, an amazing elixir of life and energy, and sheepishly asked if I could have some more. "No," she said with a strain in her voice, probably because she had been asked that same question by many that day. "There's only enough for everyone to have one serving." The rationing earned her the unfortunate joking moniker "Meatball Nazi," which stuck even though she personally assured there has been enough for everyone to have six meatballs every year since. And I now have a permanent wistful place in my heart for the Windy Gap meatball soup.

 Back to flow state, winding through the narrow corridor of Fossil Creek. Miles continued to roll away, and I was so focused on the simple task of pedaling that my mind seemed to leave my body altogether, floating somewhere above the moving bike to play its own filmstrip of near and distant memories.

 Often my thoughts turned to the reality that I would be leaving Alaska soon, and what this past month and the things I experienced here meant to me.  I was so lost in thought on this 20-mile segment that it passed in what truly felt like an instant. A burst through space-time and suddenly I was at Borealis, mile 82. Perennial checkpoint four volunteer Carleen has also become a friend, and served up ramen soup. I still didn't feel terribly hungry (my body must have been mindlessly snacking on something while I floated along), but asked her if she'd put extra flavor powder in it, because I was feeling quite salt-depleted. It had been a hot day for the Whites — although probably never above freezing, close to it — and I was overdressed with two pairs of tights, fleece and vapor barrier socks, and gaiters. My thick fleece jacket was my only wind-blocking layer, which felt necessary when riding "fast." But the whole combo was causing me to sweat a whole lot, and I was both overheated and dehydrated — and this was the first point in the race I actually acknowledged that. In truth I was riding pretty hard. I was racing, as hard as I could, within reasonable happy knee range and my own cardiovascular limits. This was also about the first point in the race I acknowledged that fact as well.

I drank as much water as I could stomach and re-upped my supply before leaving checkpoint four. Acknowledging a race mentality left me wondering just how far in front of me Laurel was by now. Amber was undoubtedly hours ahead at this point, but second place might be within reach (at the time, I didn't yet know that my friend Erica Betts got into the race at the last minute. She was first on the wait list and drove all the way out to the start of the race, hoping for a no-show, which there was! I'm thrilled she got in as she trained hard over the winter and had a great race in the Whites.) Since I never saw Laurel at the checkpoint, I was surprised when I got my answer just a few miles later, approaching a rider in a black jacket on the climb to the low ridge between Beaver Creek and Wickersham Creek. Truly a racer, she looked over her shoulder and cranked up the pace.

 I passed her by blowing past the non-mandatory trail shelter checkpoint at mile 89, but wasn't granted a Lance Mackey-like sneak-through because the volunteers spotted me on the trail and called out to get my number. Hee hee. Laurel again passed me while I walked across the overflow of Wickersham Creek. We started pushing up the Wickerhsam Wall together and I exclaimed, "This is my favorite part!," which is such a bald-faced lie. The Wickersham Wall — an 800-foot climb in less than a mile on often loose and punchy snow — has single-handedly broken me more times than any other segment of any other race. I broke down in tears on this climb in 2011, for reasons I don't even remember. But I've since dragged a sled up this thing at 20 below, and in truth it's a pretty short hike-a-bike in the grand scheme of things. The knee wouldn't let me stay in the saddle this time either, but the surface was relatively hardpacked and I briefly considered running with the bike, as a move like that might be my last chance to gain an edge in the race. But I'm not quite willing to act that ridiculous in the name of racing, so Laurel and I walked up the hill together.

 We reached the top and I sort of knew that was it for racing. Although the remaining six miles of the course is rolling hills that gain overall elevation, there wasn't enough climbing left to catch Laurel. She took off as soon as the trail reached rideable grades, and my feeble efforts to follow resulted in fierce knee pain. I did briefly consider whether my knee could hold out for six miles of sprinting without permanent damage, but that instantly seemed like a stupid question. "Or, you know, I could just enjoy the last six miles because it's a beautiful evening and the sun's still out and I feel great." Back to flow state, happy, excited be finished but also wishing that somehow this could continue for another hundred miles.

 I rolled into the finish at 7:34 p.m., for a time of 11 hours and 34 minutes. I was the fourth woman; Laurel finished third two minutes before me, Erica was second in 10:47, and Amber won in 10:33. The fastest male cyclist, Josh Chelf, torched the course in 7:53. This was an amazingly fast year for bikes; I was 24th overall and still finished nearly an hour before the first skier, Max. My own previous best time on this course was 17:55 — but chopping more than six hours off that doesn't mean a whole lot. I wasn't necessarily smarter or stronger this year, just luckier. Snow and weather conditions are pretty much everything in winter racing, which is one of the things I love about it! It was pretty awesome to finish in the daylight, with friends who I know to be fast riders still hanging out in the finish line tent eating brats. But still, I did miss out on the Northern Lights, 10-below overnight lows, and eerie silence of a night in the Whites. I had an amazing ride and a lot of fun, but not quite the full spectrum of experience that I like to seek in these endeavors.

Oh, White Mountains, I will be back. On foot? Don't hold me to any promises. ;)