Thursday, December 10, 2015

On gears around an uncaring sun

Even though it was only six months ago, I don't spend much time thinking about the Tour Divide. This is uncharacteristic for me, as memories of adventures are the background of my mental landscape — the colorful screen savers that pop into view during idle moments. Sometimes, while wheeling a cart around a grocery store, I still hear the crunch of footsteps on ice-crusted snow atop some Susitna 100 course that melted away a lifetime ago. But the Tour Divide ... that faded too soon.

When I try to think about the Tour Divide, what often pops into my mind is a flickering series of moments along the highway to Togwotee Pass, in Wyoming, one of those evenings that now sprawl like wispy clouds across an evanescing sky. I was pedaling my bike; it's funny because that's not what I remember. I remember stopping at intervals to put a foot down, slumping forward as my hands dangled over my red handlebar bag, and gasping until I caught my breath. As I looked around at pink-tinted pine trees and silhouetted road signs, these became moments of lucidity amid what is now little more than a wash of gray.

I was battling toward the top of the pass, where I knew I'd find a picnic area with an outhouse to stash my aromatic bike now that I was back in grizzly country. The decision to camp in this picnic area was one I'd made earlier in the day, and beyond that, the destination didn't hold meaning for me. I didn't care that there was already frost on the ground and my seven-year-old sleeping bag was proving less than toasty. I didn't care that I didn't really have a meal to eat beyond this bag of nuts I'd been carrying since Canada. I didn't care if rednecks came and stole my bike because I was sleeping right next to the highway, or if a bear came and gnawed on my leg. All I could feel at this end of this particularly difficult day was profound detachment. I'd been gasping all afternoon, taking longer breaks to force more oxygen into my blood while getting mauled by more mosquitoes, and I'd finally slipped into autopilot. It's endlessly interesting to me that profoundly detached autopilot, with what seems like almost no emotional investment or motivation, still generates forward motion. I'd be in Colorado before I defaulted to collapse.

The sun began to set, which only registered on an instinctive level. "The light is fading. It will be cold soon." I stopped again to cough up a glob of something thick and metallic-tasting. Coughing usually opened airways and helped me feel better briefly, but on this evening I experienced surges of fear. "The light is fading. It will be cold soon." It was almost refreshing, this fear, but it didn't stay. I fished through my seat bag to find my mittens, and while doing so, gazed back at the crimson light spreading across the sky. A tiny lake absorbed a perfect reflection, surrounded by glowing peaks of the Tetons. "This is perfect," a quiet voice whispered. "This is what you came for."

But the voice was just static on a television screen turned low and dim in the corner of a dark room, and I was an old woman staring blankly at the void. The depth of my detachment became startlingly apparent as I put on extra layers and looked away from the horizon. I did not care. My ability to care seemed to be slipping farther away. But what could I do? At some point after dusk, lyrics from an Modest Mouse song entered my flickering consciousness — "Talking Shit About a Pretty Sunset" —which, incidentally, is a song about battling indifference.

A few days later, I sought medical attention in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for shortness of breath and congestion. At the time it was measured at the clinic, my blood oxygen level was 90 percent. It's not a particularly alarming level of hypoxemia, but this was after six hours of resting while awaiting my appointment, and after my outlook had become a good deal more lucid and optimistic. In all likelihood, I'd been starving for oxygen for days. While the muscle weakness and physical distress I'd experienced was minimal given I could still ride my bike a hundred-plus miles a day (until I couldn't), it's interesting and disquieting to contemplate what this did to my mind. "Milder forms of hypoxia can impair thinking, alter levels of consciousness, cause depression and stir up anxiety." — NYT, 2006

Is it possible I experienced temporary bouts of low-level depression? I don't think this theory is entirely unfounded.

Now, facing the 1,000-mile journey to Nome and all of the physical and mental difficulties I am sure to encounter every day, I'm spending more time reflecting on what I learned from the Tour Divide. I never again want to care that little about myself or the world around me, especially in an environment as immediate and severe as Alaska. But what will I do if I again struggle with breathing? Will an inhaler be enough to restore oxygen supply? Will I know where to draw lines? I didn't always make the best decisions during the Tour Divide, where I was simply lucky to have a wider margin for error.
 I may be somewhat of a paradox in that I relish physical challenges because of the intellectual and emotional stimulation they provide, but crumble to pieces when my mental faculties are truly compromised. Another negative life experience — trying to complete the 2013 Petite Trotte à Léon in the Alps while extremely sleep-deprived — brought this to light. I was hallucinating, I was paranoid, my eyesight was failing. I lost control; I had anxiety attacks. I'll never go back to that metal space if I can avoid it.

So what makes me believe I can handle the rigors of the entire Iditarod Trail? I'll be honest — I've never felt more uncertain about anything. Even now that I've gained considerably more confidence in my physical health, I understand that physical health is only a small part of the equation. If nothing else, the 2015 Tour Divide reinforced this belief.

This isn't to say I would back out of the ITI because I'm concerned, only that mental health is something I've been pondering. The mind-body connection is both nebulous and unwavering, easy to tamper with but difficult to control. This is the most pressing challenge I'm considering, moving forward. 
Sunday, December 06, 2015

ITI training, week eight

Monday: Snow bike, 4:37, 25.3 miles, 3,522 feet climbing: This was a tough ride given I was mostly goofing off with Beat's new bike in Corner Canyon. Mashing pedals uphill through several inches of snow is hard work even if I am moving at walking pace. The worst part of the ride happened after I decided to veer downhill toward the town of Alpine, and found myself on this ridiculously steep jeep road covered in ball-bearing rocks that were masked by an inch of snow, and deep tire ruts. Walking downhill just made it worse — my shoes had poor traction on those icy rocks, and I fell on my butt while wrestling a bike that wanted to launch downhill without me. I really thought I was going to crash badly. Happily, the bike's brakes, stability, and tire traction were just amazing, and I was able to creep downhill, also at walking speeds, but upright. Then it was time to push the bike uphill on another similarly steep road, back to Draper. I was worked at the end, sweaty with minimal layers even though it was 25 degrees outside.

 Tuesday: Hike, 2:21, 6.4 miles, 2,611 feet climbing: Dad and I got out in the morning to hike Grandeur Peak before my work day, which on Mountain Time begins at noon. It was 9 degrees when we started. I know this isn't Alaska-level cold, but I don't think I've ever seen an extended cold snap this early in the winter in Salt Lake City. Temperatures were in the 20s during the day and the single digits overnight the entire week I was in town, which is relatively rare for November. I'm certainly not complaining. It was a great intro to winter for me. Grandeur Peak had minimal snow and we took it at an easy pace, jogging some on the way down.

Wednesday: Snow bike, 2:06, 12.8 miles, 1,996 feet climbing. A short but strenuous loop in the hills north of West Wendover, Nevada. Mostly what I was on this ride/hike-a-bike was cold. I was wearing the clothing I put on for driving, and set out with not enough extra layers. I needed extra gloves and socks, something warmer or at least windproof on my legs, and something to cover my face, as it was 15 degrees with a stiff breeze. I always manage to have a "freeze ride" in early December, and then the lesson is re-learned and I start making better choices. Usually it happens in California while wearing a jersey and shorts when it's 40-something degrees, so at least it was properly cold for this year's lesson.

Thursday: Morning, trail run, 1:52, 10.1 miles, 1,847 feet climbing. Evening, weight lifting at gym. I stayed with Ann in Auburn, and set out in the morning for a quick run on the Western States Trail toward No Hands Bridge. This was one of those runs where every step felt effortless. I intended to go at an easy pace for three miles and then back, but when I finally looked down at my watch, nearly five miles had passed. I attributed my abundant energy to being back in balmy California (it was 51 degrees in Auburn), but I actually think my immune system is the one to thank for this one amazing run. Have you ever heard the theory about the big blitz of fighting a virus — right before symptoms hit, your immune system kicks everything into high gear, giving your whole body a burst of power? Just a myth? Probably. Traffic was horrendous for the final 150 miles home, with torrential downpours and many accidents. By the time I hit the gym after 9 p.m., I was feeling pretty bad, which I attributed to stress from the drive. As it turned out, I was coming down with a stomach flu that my niece and nephew in Utah passed on to me. I sputtered through my weight session, but did do three sets at the same weights as Sunday. (No, I didn't yet realize I was sick. Yes, I do wipe down with disinfecting wipes before and after using machines at the gym.)

Friday: Rest. Ugh. I was sick. Stomach flu is a short-lived virus, but relentless. For most of the day I was so nauseated that I couldn't stand up without feeling dizzy, so I slept through the afternoon. Still, I waited until after 7 p.m. before I finally admitted to Liehann that I was too sick to join him for a ride in the morning. At least I'd come out of my haze enough to eat my first meal of the day — bland vegetable soup and Sprite at a Vietnamese restaurant with friends (yes, I did use hand sanitizer.)

Saturday: Evening weight lifting at the gym. Okay, I still did not feel good on Saturday, but better. I made it through two sets of lifting. I tried a run on the treadmill, but only lasted eight minutes before I felt like I was going to puke. (Yes, I did double down on the disinfecting wet wipes.)

Sunday: Trail run, 1:35, 8.6 miles, 1,101 feet climbing. I slept for 10 hours and woke up feeling amazing. 110 percent. Actually, what happened is I didn't feel quite like death anymore, but by comparison it seemed so great that I figured I could tack on a bunch of miles to the 13-mile run Beat had planned and salvage my week. Ha. As soon as we'd run 0.1 miles, it was clear I did not feel amazing, and by mile four I was about to keel over. I took a short break to get the nausea under control and then jogged home. Overeagerness noted. No harm done, really. Stomach flu is not one of those illnesses that morphs into pneumonia if you're too overeager. But pukey runs are not particularly fun.

Total: 12:32, 38.1 miles ride, 25.3 miles run, 11,077 feet climbing. Beat thinks it's a good thing I got sick and ended up having a light week. He lectured me the other day about "junk miles" — the derogatory term for what I call "volume training." Seriously, I hope to propel myself across Alaska all day every day for upwards of a month, and if I can't handle 20 hours a week of moderate-intensity efforts, then I have no business attempting this. This is my opinion. I do need to build strength, but volume is what builds endurance. Some people build endurance with lower amounts of higher-intensity training, but this has never been my practice and I'm not even sure how it would work for me. When I was training for the 2014 Iditarod, I mostly logged weeks in the 15-20-hour range, and rarely had rest days. I was pretty happy with my endurance for that event, but as always I was disappointed with my insufficient strength and lack of specificity (I had pulled a sled so little in training that I had difficulties with my hips and hamstrings, and shin splints because 350 miles is just a long damn way to walk in 7 days.)

As always in this sort of endeavor, it's never about how fast you go, but how slow you don't go. If I can establish a solid forever pace and maintain it for hours and days with minimal bodily breakdown, I'll have achieved my version of ideal fitness. The body can adapt to long-duration, limited-rest efforts. You see this in practice with thru-hikers: those who start fit and don't overdo it early tend to get stronger as they go. Setbacks such as the stomach flu notwithstanding. I hope to have a better week, next week.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Beat's new bike

The day before Thanksgiving, Beat and I stopped in Grand Junction to pick up the bicycle Beat plans to ride to Nome in March: a custom titanium Eriksen designed and previously owned by Mike Curiak. This is Beat's third "Curiak" fat bike, and it's gotten to the point where Mike e-mails Beat directly before he posts his bikes for sale. (Edit: As per MC's comment below, Beat was the one who initiated this sale.) I liken Beat to an art collector in this regard. When it comes to bikes for winter backcountry touring, arguably nobody in the world has more experience or has put more thought into the specifics than Mike Curiak. Even as I balk and argue that two people who live in a small apartment in coastal California do not need another fat bike, I can't deny a deep appreciation for these beautiful machines. It's gotten to the point where we actually do hang them on the walls.

This is also possibly the current best bike in the world for Beat's intended use on the Iditarod Trail. Mike wrote about this bike: "Key word above = geometry. I had a custom frame built because although everyone seems to make a fatbike these days, none of them come anywhere close to geometry that really, truly works on snow. 99.9% of the people buying and riding fatbikes these days don't know any better, and 90% of them don't care. Most are simply happy looking down on their gee-whiz bulbous tires, thinking that the tires are the most important thing. No way."

More details about this bike here and here.

Although I've been in awe of cycling from the moment I decided to pursue bicycle touring in 2002 (in my own backward way of deciding on a 600-mile trip, then re-learning to shift and pedal on a borrowed bicycle, and then finally buying one), I have never loved bicycles. Sure, I form emotional attachments with my well-used bicycles, to the point where you'd have to mangle my four-year-old, high-mileage Moots mountain bike beyond recognition before I'd ever be willing to give him up, and even then I'd cry. (I did actually shed a few tears when I shipped my Surly Pugsley to a new owner in Alaska, and sent my Karate Monkey to live with my sister because I couldn't bear to let her go. Also, I ascribe genders and personality traits to my bicycles.)

So perhaps I am bicycle obsessed after all. But a large part of me remains annoyed by the realities of bicycles — they're bulky things, and quite heavy when loaded with touring gear. They have to be carried or pushed in a wide range of unrideable conditions. They break down and need new parts frequently. They have to be secured and fretted about when left unsupervised. There are always these new-fangled components like thru-axles that I can't coax into releasing without much gnashing of teeth. (I have real difficulties with mechanical learning, of which I'm not proud, but there it is.) Even among rideable trails, a high percentage are off-limits to bicycles. There's so much more freedom — and fewer complications — in hiking, running, and backpacking. And yet the feeling of riding a bicycle — the steady rhythm, flow, and ease of covering ground — will always keep me coming back to cycling, even if the machines vaguely irritate me.
This one of the many reasons why Beat and I work so well together. He appreciates bicycles to the level of an art connoisseur, and I benefit from his attentiveness and fine-tuned decisions. On the other side, I love cycling so much that I'm pretty happy to straddle just about any bicycle and wrangle it into working for me, and like to think I do my part to coax Beat into riding the works of art on the wall.

Beat flew back to California on Sunday night, but I decided to spend a couple more days with my family in Salt Lake. Alone with Beat's new bike, of course I had to take it out for a ride on the neighborhood trails in Corner Canyon.

Here's another embarrassing confession that reveals my contemptuousness when it comes to mechanics: This bicycle came with two sets of wheels — 29" rims with 3" tires for "summer" use, and fat bike rims and knobby tires for "winter" use. Beat mounted the skinny wheels for his desert ride in Loma, and I was effectively too lazy to swap out the wheels. Sure, I reasoned that the trails were mostly well-packed and the 29+ set-up would be sufficient. But I also knew that my tendency is to venture off beaten paths to explore new ground, and I *knew* that rather than riding the established network of well-built, world-class singletrack, I was going to end up exploring the untracked jeep roads above the canyon. This is just who I am, and why I don't always abide well with the limitations of bicycles.

Still, for riding in anywhere from 3" to 9" of drifted, somewhat crusty fluff, this bike handled impressively well. It helps that Utah snow is practically like air, but I had great fun motoring up steep hillsides that were pocked with deer tracks and nothing else. Sure, the big wheels would have assisted an easier and faster ride, but I was glad for a little more nimbleness when I launched down a mercilessly steep jeep track riddled with baseball-sized boulders that were hidden by a thin layer of snow. Brakes were dialed in as well, thank goodness.

On Wednesday I turned west to head home. I hoped to visit Ann in Auburn that evening, but the timing worked out that I had about two hours to kill en route along I-80. I chose to stop early in the day in West Wendover, Nevada — a place on the Utah/Nevada border that I used to frequent shortly after I turned 21 because there was such novelty in cramming six friends into a $19.99 hotel room, dropping $25 on the roulette table over a series of $0.50 bets, and milking all the free perks while chatting with some truly eyebrow-raising characters at the Red Garter Casino. These days, the thought of such an outing depresses me to no end. Thus, by association, Wendover does as well.

I usually actively avoid this place when driving between Utah and California, even for a bathroom break, but this time decided to finally check out the hills surrounding this somewhat run-down tiny resort town at the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats. I parked at the Stateline Casino and set out on a jeep road toward a small cluster of mountains to the north. Because of Wendover's extremely dry climate, I was not expecting to see any snow, so I again didn't change out the wheels. It was a rude awakening to step outside to a temperature of 15F, a slight breeze, and after a few hundred feet of climbing, several inches of snow.

In just over two hours, I was only able to link up a 13-mile loop with a short spur toward a rocky canyon. There was a fair amount of walking along these steep jeep roads, most of which were untracked. I was wearing what I had for hiking at 15 or so degrees the previous week, forgetting that when I ride a bicycle, I need to dress at least a layer warmer. My hands and feet became useless clumps of cold meat. There was a long, gradual descent on a severely rutted and rocky road that was just technical enough to prevent me from applying much effort, and I froze without relief.

At yet, I was so enamored with this frozen landscape — almost alien in its barren expansiveness, and yet so close to the interstate that I could venture out for a quick jaunt in the same amount of time many travelers would drop a few bucks on slots and $6.99 prime rib lunch.

I also have a better sense for how well this bike is going to work for Beat in Alaska. It is quite nimble, light, and comfortable — the saddle notwithstanding. (I used to pride myself on being able to sit my butt on any saddle without issues, but Adamo saddles quickly cause what feels like bruising on my sit bones. After my five-hour ride on Monday, I could hardly sit in a chair without wincing. Beat uses these saddles because they distribute weight directly to the sit-bones to protect softer body parts, so I get it. But they strongly do not work for me.)

But if we have to have another bike filling the walls of our apartment, I'm glad it's this one.