Sunday, April 27, 2014

Practice makes perfect (fun)

 There was a time when I called the training I did "practicing." Sometimes I think I should go back to that term. Athletic training implies all kinds of complex notions —specificity, scheduling, structure, repetition, targeting, nutrition, rigidity ... Practicing, on the other hand, is comparatively simple. You want to improve something? Practice that exact thing. You want it to become second nature? Practice more.

 My friend Leah paid me a nice compliment as we climbed out of Tennessee Valley in the Marin Headlands on Thursday evening. "You seem stronger," she said. "I feel stronger," I replied. The difference between now and any other time in the past year is now I'm spending more time really practicing on the bike — putting in long days, climbing lots, carrying big packs, and piggybacking on a solid winter running base with an activity that I'm naturally stronger at. I still run during the week — keeping a base at about 15-20 miles per week — but the bike practicing has really improved since I got on the fat bike shortly after the Iditarod Trail Invitational seven weeks ago. During the winter, a nine-hour ride was fairly taxing; now I can do nine solid hours with lots of climbing and finish not even feeling sore.

Of course, the kind of "practicing" I do is what athletic trainers call base building — operating below lactate threshold as much as possible, keeping the heart rate moderate, and maintaining a steady pace throughout long hours in the saddle — i.e., not slowing down later on in the ride. It works for me to practice this, because it's exactly what I'd do every day of a multiday endurance effort . When you have little time to recover for the following day, you can't pump a bunch of lactic acid into your muscles and rev up the heart. Everything you do has to be sustainable if you can manage it (Sometimes, especially in Alps foot races, even the slowest you can possibly move is still unsustainable.) But it's interesting, because even though I'm doing nothing for my high end, the threshold of my moderate zone is increasing. I can go somewhat faster with the same effort; but, more importantly, I can go longer.

For Liehann's and my Saturday ride, I designed a mountain bike tour of Santa Cruz, linking up major trail systems — Henry Cowell, Pogonip, UC Santa Cruz, Wilder Ranch, Forest of the Nisene Marks, and Demo Forest (alas, my route was 100-percent legal. Santa Cruz has a lot of trail restrictions; as a result, there's an entrenched poaching culture complete with secret trails that I am not privy to, and not necessarily interested in getting caught up in the politics.) Starting from the intersection of Summit Road and Highway 17, it's about 74 miles with 9,400 feet of climbing. Route info here.

 Liehann on Mountain Charlie Road, a narrow and rough paved road that made for a swooping descent. We started the ride with a ten-mile downhill, which was a fun indulgence. I imagined that we were shuttled to the top and would only have to do that one descent all day. The thought actually made me feel grateful it wasn't the case, because how boring would that be?

 We made an effort to navigate by map again, with limited success. We have't found great maps of the region yet — our topo maps don't include street or trail names, and it's too easy to lose track of the route amid dozens of turns in urban areas. I had a lot more success with cue sheets and an odometer, although a couple of reroutes off my original track necessitated math for the remainder of the day.

 My favorite segment of the ride was Henry Cowell Redwoods, even though stupid rules nudged us off of the trails we planned to ride. We ended up on a makeshift reroute, no real idea where we were going, pedaling a rollercoaster of ridiculously steep climbs and descents through an enchanted forest.

 Crossing the San Lorenzo River, the perfect cap to our adventures through Henry Cowell.

 Wilder Ranch was a fast but bumpy descent along a grassy hillside, with one rainforest-like diversion on the Enchanted Loop Trail.

 Contouring the coast on a sandy farm road — another favorite of mine because it's all about the scenery, which is suddenly so different. Pelicans, sculpted bluffs, surfers, salty breezes, and waves crashing on rocks.

Sand Point Overlook, about midway through the long climb up Aptos Creek Fireroad. Here's yet another favorite — soft mulch dirt, traffic-free, mellow grades that make you feel like a powerhouse, more enchanted forest, and long-range views of the coast. I was feeling fresh for having ~50 miles on the legs already. I've been experimenting by eating less on long rides, as my own way of developing better fuel efficiency (useful for when unlimited calories aren't readily accessible for days or weeks.) On Saturday, I had only had a few handfuls of fruit and nuts by the time Liehann and I stopped for a picnic lunch at hour five of the ride. That was a little too low; I was ravenous and mowed through a ham sandwich and a giant rice crispy treat. After initially feeling icky with a full stomach, I had my sugar surge and powered up that climb feeling on top of the world.

The Braille Trail in Demonstration Forest. A little on the rutted side. This area is a popular shuttle spot and it was strange not to see another rider up here on a Saturday — although it was late in the day, and cool as well (45 degrees by the time we got back to the car.) I have deeply mixed feelings about technical trails, but I'm much happier when I have them all to myself and there's no one to witness me clunking around or to come screaming from behind. Every time I attempt techy riding I give more thought to the real value of improving my skills, at my age and with my inclinations. I think, "maybe someday I'll spend real time on this." But for now, I'm primarily a "bike tourist." I like dirt, off-the-beaten path routes, scenery, and distance. And I feel less and less need to apologize for anything else that doesn't fit into the mold of a specific type of cyclist.

Late evening on Highland Way. It was the perfect way to end the day, high on a ridge with views of the many places we'd just ridden. This was an aesthetic, fun loop, and I'm glad I've invented reasons to keep on practicing bikes.
Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Covering ground

When it comes to preparing for a long-distance bikepacking event or tour, long days in the saddle are a requisite part of physical and mental training. I'm not sure anyone has figured out an effective way around this yet — at least, not without significant butt, back, and leg pain. No matter how meticulously fine-tuned your machine of a body is, it still needs to adjust to being all hunched over and turning pedals continuously hour after long hour. But ... I've found ... eventually they do. And the results are wonderfully freeing. You find yourself thinking increasingly about "where can I ride today?" The sky (and daylight hours) are the limit! 

For obvious reasons of daylight hours ... and money ... relative proximity to where I reside is also a limit. But my goal for the next few weeks is to put in at least one, hopefully two longish rides every week, with a sub-goal to explore as many corners of the Santa Cruz Mountains as I can manage. I don't want to just ride the same two worn-out routes every week. I want to see new places. Enjoy some day tours. That's what bikes are for. The map shows the three routes I rode since last Monday — the left is my "Santa Cruz Century," the middle is a gut-buster of a gravel extravaganza that I called the "Quicksilver Grinder," and the right is a somewhat failed exploratory loop around Loma Prieta summit. I was able to cover quite a few new-to-me miles, not to mention a large cross-section of this little mountain range by the sea. 

Liehann joined for the Quicksilver Grinder. I warned him that at our comfortable day pace, this 70-mile loop was going to take nine or ten hours. I'm not sure he believed me, but meanness sets in quick. Two 2,500- and 3,000-foot climbs are packed with 16-percent-plus grades, and the second is on loose gravel, exposed to the hot sun, with rapacious little flies hovering in an insanity cloud. Six miles up the Priest Rock Trail in Sierra Azul took two hours, and I only actually hiked about a hundred meters — most of the time I was pedaling at < 3 mph. I relish in this sort of thing — spun out on some hot dirt road, drenched in sweat, clawing at the flies buzzing my ears, only to arrive at the summit with a cool breeze wafting through the brush, look out over the valley, and think, "Ah, that was so worth it!" Why do I think it was so worth it? That's a bit more difficult to articulate than the reasons why I thought it was hard. 

My accurate time estimate put us in Quicksilver in the late afternoon. I've been to Quicksilver once before and I remember the park having hills. Compared to El Sereno and Sierra Azul, Quicksilver is pancake flat, and Liehann and I thoroughly enjoyed our evening spin. We still had to ride 25 miles back through hilly suburban streets to get home, and that was admittedly less fun. We did, however, navigate the entire route solely with paper maps that had no street or trail names listed. I managed to keep the GPS turned off the entire time. It was a win on multiple levels. 

On Sunday I went for a run with Beat. He is not so interested in long day rides or tours right now (I'm still working on him in this regard), but it's still nice to get outside together. I am still adjusting — I would say not well — to California heat. I suppose I could adjust my habit of working out in the late afternoon, but morning workouts have never gone well for me, regardless of temperature. Still, I struggle when the mercury climbs above 80, and Sunday's run kept me drenched. I managed to suck down two liters of water in two hours. Drinking lots of water is one of the things I do to cope with heat, and it's not necessarily a positive thing. My head feels better but my body has to slosh through a lot of liquid while shedding salt. I basically need to figure out a strategy of not carrying so much water that I drink too much, while still having enough to stay hydrated and not run dry (which tends to freak me out.) Still, it was a beautiful afternoon, and Beat was happy with a mellow pace. 

I blocked out Monday afternoon for my second long ride. Luckily this afternoon was overcast and cool, and I had mapped out an exciting new route near a 3,700-foot mountain called Loma Prieta. The problem with creating new routes from maps and quick Google searches is that I can never be certain if my route is passable. In Alaska and Montana, the question was always, "Does this road or trail still exist or is it completely overgrown?" In California, the question is, "Is this road or trail open and legal?" The answer is usually no.

I ran into several closed signs (somewhat vaguely worded, I decided to interpret them as just prohibiting vehicles rather than bikes), and then finally a locked gate on Loma Prieta. I wasn't even planning to go to the top of the mountain, just around it. But my whole loop depended on that connection, so I had to revise. Without a GPS line to follow or maps, I struck out along a sandy road that rolled along a ridge. The steep up-and-down with sweeping views of Monterey Bay and the Salinas Valley proved to be a lot of fun despite a "no bikes" sign that someone had dubiously posted on their own property next to this public road. I descended a long way through a redwood canyon and ended up in the valley somewhere near Watsonville, meandering aimlessly because I didn't have a map. The only thing my GPS was really good for at that point was outlining the location of the sea. Luckily, vague memories pushed me toward Corralitos and Eureka Canyon, where I was able to find my way back up to Highland. I considered a quick jaunt around the downhill trails at Demo Forest, but remembered that even one loop there takes 90 minutes, and this ride was already pushing six hours, which is all I had blocked out for it.

I do love day touring. Exploring new places helps all of the hours and miles pass quickly, and before I know it, my butt is in excellent shape for some real distance. 
Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lost. So lost.

I am working on improving my navigational skills. It is a terrifying prospect. In my early 20s, I leaned on friends to handle much of the route-finding on backpacking trips through Utah's canyon country. By my late 20s, I was leaning on GPS. I had my Atlas and USGS topographic maps to piece together mountain excursions in Juneau, bikepacking trips in Utah, and jeep road explorations in Montana — but GPS was always there to lend a friendly screen as I stared bewildered into the tree- or fog-obscured wilderness. Orienteering sounded to me like a not fun sport. Constant focus and translation of maps and non-specific gadgets like compasses and altimeters took away all of the fun of hiking. I like to just hike and look up. What's so wrong with that?

Lately I have been spending more time looking at maps and am beginning to read up on orienteering techniques. Completely unrelated to my map study, on Thursday I set up a plan to meet a friend in Berkeley in the late afternoon. In an effort to beat what can often be horrific traffic, I left two hours early and figured I could kill some time writing at a coffee shop. But then I thought it sounded better to head to Tilden Park for a quick, maybe hour-long run. I'd run with Ann in Tilden Park before, and I knew the general layout and a few specific trail sections. My car's GPS was not so helpful in finding a known trailhead; after accidentally crossing the first half of the Bay Bridge (yeah, I suck at freeway navigation, too), I meandered somewhat aimlessly toward the hills until I happened upon an entrance to the park. I looked at the clock. I still had time.

The trailhead post offered free trail maps. I studied the lines and contours and determined what looked like a great five- or six-mile loop, climbing up to a ridge, dropping into a canyon, and following a creek back to the trailhead. Easy Peasy.

Disorientation set in within a half mile. There were twisty turns and unmarked trail junctions, and yet somehow I made it to the ridge, ran along the smooth and comforting rollers with lots of landmarks in view, located the turn 2.5 miles in, and dropped into the canyon. After a half mile of twisty turns through the woods, I wasn't exactly sure whether I was running west or south, or whether I was even on a mapped trail. There weren't that many other trails on the map, but there seemed to be plenty of junctions. Yes, I get it. Maps are sort of useless without a compass. Another quarter mile across a rocky creek bed and back up a steep hillside had me questioning whether I'd even started where I thought I'd started, if I was still somewhere in Berkeley, or maybe space-time had transported me to southern Oregon or an oaken hillside in the year 1886. I mean, when you feel lost, you feel lost. The ridge was still up there somewhere, so I took the first opportunity to veer onto a fire road — not signed — and began to climb up a steep, grassy hillside.

Of course the climb was about a thousand feet. Of course I ran out of water. Of course I was behind schedule. I grabbed my cell phone to call my friend — not only to inform her I'd be late, but also hopeful that if I described my surroundings, she could tell me where I was — but there was no reception. Maybe I had been transported to 1886! But no, there were the shimmering skyscrapers of San Francisco. How the hell can I be lost in Berkeley, California? How have I gone so many years and so many adventures on my own, while remaining so bad at orientation and navigation?

Finally I gained a summit with a view of San Pablo Reservoir. This was the right ridge. I just needed to find my original route. The fireroad turned in the wrong direction, and impatience had me nearly slicing through brush flourishing with poison oak, but I held off until I located an intersection. Really, not that difficult. But it's funny how panicked I become when I don't understand exactly where I am. This does not bode well for improving my navigational prowess. Not at all.

Going back the exact way I came something like five miles later wasn't even completely straightforward. I didn't remember the trail being so narrow, so steep, so brushy. Maybe I just didn't remember. Ga! By the time I stumbled back to the trailhead, I buried my face in a drinking fountain for several minutes and then sheepishly made my way through the meandering streets to my friend's house. Maybe I could tell her I got stuck in traffic and no one would ever have to know. But no, shame is probably the only way I'm ever going to get any better at this.