Sunday, December 16, 2012

It never ends.

If I'm going to keep blogging at this pace I am going to have to expand my subject range from endurance sports and into other interests of mine (of which there actually are some).

As may be obvious I do a lot of reading and honestly I'm not very discriminating about what I read. I read everything that comes to hand and sometimes that's not very literary. But I am always reading. I really don't know what I would do without being in the middle of a book. When one ends I start another. Chain reading I guess.

Lately though it has come to my attention that other folks have different attitudes and habits about reading. A few of these strike me as particularly odd.

One friend of mine is saving some of one particular author “for later” because he doesn't want to run out. It is true that this particular author is unlikely to write any more (he's dead) and has been an inspiration to many, but the behavior still seems bizarre. The way I see it there are new books coming out every day. Some of those are going to be of interest to you. Some of those are going to be good. And some will even be great. I understand that there will never be another author X, but that doesn't prevent someone from being just as good in a different sort of way. I know I will never again read Tolkien's The Silmarillion for the first time. That's okay I have found a lot of other books and authors that are just as good in their own way. Nor am I particularly off put by having the ending “spoiled”. The journey is just as important as the destination (this of coming from someone who saw the ending of The Usual Suspects before seeing the rest.)

Another person I know only reads two authors. He reads them over and over, but only those two. He has found what he likes I guess. This is equally, no, even more bizarre. Granted the two authors he reads are pretty darn good, but it seems so limiting. I wonder how many other authors he read before he came to the conclusion that those were the authors for him. Again I'll use the example of Tolkien. I read The Silmarillion perhaps 12 times in one year. I was a little obsessed back then (I still am just about different things), but I read other things. I read essays about Tolkien, his writing, published notes, and even studied his created languages (no, I can't really speak elvish, just a few phrases). But I got over it, within a year or so I was reading Dostoevsky, then Pirsig, and so on. I did re-read The Silmarillion and The Hobbit a few months ago and quite enjoyed it.

Now comes the most surprising and probably most common weirdness of all. Apparently some people, when they come close to the end of a book actually slow down and read it slower. Only reading a few lines at a time. Spreading it out and savoring it. Not wanting the book to end. This is completely unfathomable to me. If anything when I come to the end of a book I forget everything else and dive in completely. I read to all hours of the night throwing caution, meals, and sleep to the wind. It's not so much that I want the book to end, but I am so eager to see what comes next, how it plays out. Besides, I know that as soon as I am finished there will be another book waiting for me.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

It's not a principle thing.

I've lived a car-free life for a while now. Actually I've never had a car (though at times I have had pretty much free access to them). It's not so bad for the most part. I bike or walk pretty much everywhere which is great in town. Out of town it's not so great. Within about 15 miles it's no big deal, but if I want to go further I pretty much have to plan my day around it.

The past couple of months though it's been a little more inconvenient. In October there was a bike race and a run I had planned on going to but couldn't because of transportation. This weekend I had considered going north to find snow, but didn't in part because no one else seemed to want to play my game (ie. give me a ride).

Granted, here are ways of getting around without owning a car and I've used most of them, but most are beyond inconvenient. Anyone who has tried to use the intercity bus system here in the US knows that. Car rental is okay, but expensive, especially when you don't have auto insurance and have to purchase that as well. Finding someone who is going the same place as you works pretty well, but can be a hassle to arrange and sometimes feels a little cheap or “dirtbag,” plus you're at the mercy of their schedule.

So lately I've been thinking about whether or not it makes sense for me to buy a car. The initial cost doesn't bother me. I can drop the cash on a reliable vehicle. The things that get me are the costs associated with car ownership: insurance, gas, maintenance, parking that quickly add up to more than the cost of the car itself. And then there are the costs that might not be so obvious, but come along (at least for me) with car ownership: race entry fees, fast food, hotel/campground fees.

I worry as well that if I were to get a car it would be too easy for me to drive where I once biked or walked. I don't care to be car dependent (though it might be said that I already am).

Then there's the identity problem. Who am I if I have a car? I already went through that when I got a phone. It gets tiring quickly when everyone seems to comment, “whoa, you got an X.” Yes, I did. Like everyone else.

Right now circumstances are still in favor of no car for me. I just don't have the desire to put that much money towards something I'll use once or twice a month. So I doubt I'll be getting a car any time soon, but the day may (and probably will) come.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A theory of action in endurance sport.

NB: nothing which follows should be construed as metaphysical truth.

Lately I have started working more on technique in my training. It's something that I have been neglecting and gotten away with for a long time. Similarly, I used to ignore training at all! I would just go about my usual day to day activities and gut it out on race days. Surprisingly it worked okay and I got away with it for a long time. I ran my first marathon with zero training. I managed 3rd place in my first 24 hour mountain bike race with only two mountain bike rides under me...ever.

Attempting to ski Arrowhead though taught me that I can only expect to get so far on natural talent. I had to start training on a regular basis. Just putting in the time has gotten me a long way (literally). I managed to ski and walk Arrowhead and run the Superior 100, but I have pretty much reached the limit without changing something in the way I run/bike/ski.

That something I am now changing is technique. I am starting to study more closely, listen to my body, and try new things. It is easy to say “keep your hips forward” and another to find out what that means. To that end I am reading and trying out some methods from books and taking yoga classes. I would like to learn from a teacher, especially when it comes to skiing, but that doesn't seem to be a possibility at present. The one person nearby whose skill I respect is not willing to teach and all classes are prohibitively far away.

As it is I think I have made some minor breakthroughs in running and skiing, mostly involving posture and lean.

It is tough to back off on the physical training though and focus on technique. It is hard not to go all out and believe that soreness is the only indicator of progress, but I know better. The way I see it there are three aspects to endurance sports, and maybe life in general: Body, Mind, and Spirit. (Now don't freak out, spirit isn't something supernatural in this case. It's just a way of talking about something which we all understand.)

  • Body is the physical part. It is muscular strength. It is what is trained by lifting or running (I have no intention of going into the strength vs. conditioning argument here. Suffice to say both are covered by “body”).
  • Mind is technique and planning. It is what we think about. It is consciously paying attention to what we are doing and how we are feeling and making changes to it.
  • Spirit is willpower and determination. It is not stopping when things get tough. It is our attitude.

Now of course we need all three to do anything, but we all have our strengths and weaknesses. And we can compensate for a lack in one by strength in the others. My forte to begin with was spirit (if I do say so myself). I could keep going even with terrible pain, blisters, etc.. By incorporating some training of the body I managed to improve, a lot, but I am not an incredible physical specimen and likely never will be. I continue to improve here, but gains are likely to be gradual. My weakest third is the mind.

I have rarely paid attention to how I am doing what I am doing. Instead of listening to my body when it tells me it isn't working I fall back on spirit and ignore the pain. Nor do I do a good job of planning either in training or in racing. Not a good long term strategy even if it has gotten me a long way. Now, hopefully, with some mindful training I will be able to improve yet again.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Enemy of the good

Snow was forecast for last weekend and while we did get a dusting it didn't last through the day. Not enough for skiing in any case. The upside is that it did finally get cold. Down to 13f (-10C) or so when I rode in to work this morning.

I did manage to drag myself and my roller-skis out to Ada Hayden park last night. I did about 9 miles (15k) in ferocious wind. I was hoping for a technique workout, but it ended up being an adversity workout. I guess I need those too. The wind was blowing my poles out to the side in the crosswinds and I had to do some flying (dying) herringbone into it. Not even on the uphills, just to get along on the flats. I suppose I could have done some V1 but I didn't feel like doing that for ¼ mile straight into the that wind. Good practice in any case.

It always takes a few days to get back into colder weather. Remembering how to dress, dealing with numb fingers, and seeing how far I can push it. For instance riding the bike out to ski was torture and my hands and legs were hurting, but once I started skiing I was fine, maybe even a little warm.

There was some concern that the mornings snow would make for an icy path, but I didn't need to be worried. The path was mostly clear and the ice, where there was any, was visible. I did slip once, but didn't go down. In fact the path improved as I skied. I think the wind and dry conditions helped to clear it.

Sorry, I don't have any pictures to prove that I did it, but it was dark, that's what I get for sitting around all day wasting daylight.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Lessons in applied procrastination

November was a bit of a bust. I tried to take on too much and ended up doing nothing. Well, not nothing but a lot less than I would or could have.  

Thing number one that I did was continue my daily training. After work I go out for a run or roller-ski or bike. I had a pretty good Monday through Friday routine going. Weekends were still a little weak, but weekdays were solid. Weekends are always a bit of a challenge.  I think I've mentioned that it's hard for me to drag myself out of bed. 

Thing number two was start taking a yoga class. The class took/takes the place of one of my weekday runs, but in spite of a slow start is now quite challenging. I was hoping for a little more in terms of balance exercises, but it's good as it is. I think a lot of the other folks in the class are annoyed about it being so challenging. I don't know what they were expecting.

Thing number three was an attempt at NaNoWriMo. NaNo is a challenge to write a novel in one month. Novel here being defined as a work of fiction of at least 50,000 words. I managed about 8,500 words in a few short bursts at the keyboard. To call it a work of fiction is a little strong as it was just a collection of 8,500 more or less random words. I think I could have managed to punch out the quota, had I spent more time in the chair, but it would have gone immediately into the fire. I would have built a fire for the express purpose of doing so. I will likely try again, but I will have an outline to guide me.

Instead of spending my time concentrating on NaNoWriMo and my daily workouts (I have managed to make it to the weekly yoga classes though I'm not spending much time on it outside of class) I spent a lot of time reading. It's an old habit of mine that stretches back at least to high school and probably further. When there is something I should do, but am not doing I read. I got a lot of reading done during college.

I am slowly climbing back on the wagon with respect to my training and signing up for Tuscobia has reignited my desire. Of course as I write I can look outside and see that what I should really be doing is roller-skiing and rather than drinking coffee and browsing the internet. 

 Books read in November

Thursday, October 18, 2012

More skis than you require.

I bought another pair of skis.  That makes six pairs.  I think i just managed to get out skiing six times last year (it was a bad snow year). That's unconscionable, I should donate a few pairs to poor Finns in need of decent skis.

(There is nothing to make you realize what a shabby bachelor lifestyle you live than taking photos in your kitchen.)

My collection (from left to right) includes:
  • Fischer RCR Skate: purchased for Arrowhead training and possible race use.
  • Bonna Waxless: my only waxless skis and a little too short for me; my go-to slush and road skis.  These are my worst skis and unfortunately my most used
  • Fischer Country Wax: the skis that finished Arrowhead.  Very nice all conditions on and off track skis.  The ski I recommend to others.
  • Fischer Europa 99 Wax: my first skis.  The full metal edge makes them nice for icy slopes. 
  • Åsnes Military Surplus: The new skis.  Set up detailed below.
  • Fischer RCR Classic: hopefully to be used at Arrowhead this year.
I really couldn't resist the new Åsnes skis.  They were $15 plus shipping, are very fat, came with skins (an additional $10) and white.

White is super cool.  Why?  When I was in Finland (btw, all of my conversations for the past year have included this phrase) we used white army skis and there is nothing cooler than watching someone ski on white skis.  It looks like they're just gliding along the ground; like magic.  Suomalainen taika.

(find the skis)

I intend to set up these skis to be as close to those skis I used in Finland as possible.  The size is approximately right.  The Åsnes are a little lighter and have a metal edge which the Finnish skis didn't have.  The main problem is finding appropriate boots and bindings.  The boots were like rubber galoshes and used a kind of cable binding.  

I thought I had a solution in the military surplus bindings below, and literally a pair of galoshes, but it turns out the bindings are a rather poor American copy of a primitive Italian AT binding.  Apparently they are known for breaking cables.  I'm not surprised as every step crushes the cable under the boot.  Who thought that was a good idea?  At least they were cheap ($10).

Now I'm thinking I'll have to abandon that idea and use some old three pin bindings and find some decent boots.  That kind of ruins the cheap theme though.  It looks like I've got some time before it snows though.  Maybe some good cable bindings will show up. 

I'm obsessed.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Arrowhead Gear Not-List

I got a lot of questions after Superior about my experiences and equipment for Arrowhead.  I was encouraged to write up a list of all my gear and I started working on one.  It was going to have photos and lots of detail and all that, but then I realized it wouldn't do anyone any good.

Seriously, I'm not trying to be a jerk.  There is a great gear list out there already.  It's the same list I use as I prepare for the race each year.  Besides, it really doesn't matter what brand of stove or pants I'm using.  There are plenty of good choices out there and just copying someone else would be foolish and dangerous at this kind of race.  What is important is that you try out the gear you are going to use.

I know how it sounds, and I've been on the receiving end of it, but it's the truth.  Go running, biking, skiing, and camping in the cold and see what works and what doesn't.  There's no other way.  There is time between now and the end of January to do that.

In the lead up to the 2006 Arrowhead I learned a lot.  I did a windy ride in 14f that told me my gloves weren't enough.  I slept on my back porch in the snow (and scared my roommates) on the coldest nights of December.  I rode 20 miles out of town and found out that I hated sardines.

There are a few tips that I can safely give you though.  They aren't super specific because what works for me might not for you, but here they are:
  • Your sleeping system is warm.  If you have the required gear you have a sleeping bag, pad, and bivy that will keep you alive and warm at -40f or lower.  When you pile a -20f bag, an insulated pad and a bivy together along with perhaps some down pants and jacket you might even be sweating!  Don't be afraid to use it because it's "too cold."
  • If something is wrong do something about it.  Feet cold?  Put on warmer footwear or socks.  Hungry?  Eat.  Hydration pack hose frozen?  Thaw it in your jacket.  Panicking or toughing it out won't help.  
  • You will sweat.  You are working hard.  Don't freak out.  Deal with it.  Unzip your jacket a bit.  Slow your pace.  Wear a man diaper if it makes you happy.  Try out some different layering systems in training, before it matters.  
  • Hands and feet are tough to keep warm.  Try layering gloves and mittens.  Step away from the cycling shoes and try pac boots.  Try socks on the outside of your shoes for extra insulation.  
  •  Again, don't freak out.  Do something about it.  That something might be getting in your sleeping bag and drinking something warm before you end up with frostbite and hypothermia. 
I am happy to answer specific questions on the blog, forum or Facebook, but I can't answer everything in one post or even a book.  Much of this is something you just have to find out for yourself. 

Backyard training at 10f back in '10.  If you look closely you can see some of my "secrets."

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Superior 100 Run (the abridged version)

I had a huge, detailed, blow-by-blow account of the Superior 100 almost done when I realized, no one wants to read this...I don't want to read this.  Here's a condensed version of the same:

I ran/walked 100 miles and it wasn't easy.  Hard lessons were learned last year and so I started out slow and made sure to eat more, much more.  The first 42 miles went pretty well.  Knowing the course helped and I made it to County Road 6 much earlier than last year.

Once it got dark I started walking a lot more than running which was a mistake.  The course from CR 6 to Finland and on to Crosby-Manitou was the most runnable part of the trail.

At the halfway point in Finland I slept for 30-45 minutes and spent too much time drying my socks by the fire.  It would have been nice to have had a drop bag with dry socks and shirt.  Thanks to Dallas Sigurdur I left Finland with a dry, if not completely clean shirt. 

I chatted with Jason Buffington at the Sonju Lake Road aid station in the middle of the night.  It's always good to see folks you know.

By Crosby-Manitou aid station (mile 63) I was falling asleep walking and really needed a nap, but there was just no way I could stop and still finish.  The sky was beginning to lighten.

From Crosby-Manitou to Sugarloaf was the most trying section of the trail.  I almost dropped out.  I had to take a nap on a rock (only about 5 minutes, but it really helped).  It started raining and kept raining.  Combined with the cool temperatures I was starting to get to a really bad place.  Luckily my Arrowhead instincts cut in and I stopped, made a raincoat out of a garbage bag I was carrying (thanks to Lynn Saari), and was able to continue if slowly and unfashionably.

By the time I arrived at Sugarloaf I was a wreck.  My feet were wet and blistered, I was cold, and in a foul mood.  Kurt Neuberger and his wife (whose name I should really know) nursed me back to health with some warm soup (squash, very good), ibuprofen, and clean dry socks!

From there I started to feel better and move faster.  I started to pace off of some of the 50 mile runners and that along with some conversation made the miles pass.  Climbing Carleton Peak I was stung by a wasp which was painful but took my mind off of the rest of my pain and the ~20 miles I had left.

At the Sawbill aid station I found that I was dangerously close to the cutoff.  I would really have to book it if I wanted to finish.  I ran like an old man, but I ran pretty much the whole way to Oberg.  I was stung by a wasp once again and by happenstance met another runner from Ames.  I arrived at Oberg with 15 minutes to spare.  I would have 3 hours to run 7 miles.  That was a cushion I could deal with.

I mostly fast hiked the last stretch with a small group.  Two 50 mile runners and two 100 mile runners.  The "Stairway to Heaven" section of Moose Mountain was a welcome sight (I am good at uphills) and soon enough the lights of Lutsen were in sight.  My right ankle was screaming at me on every downhill.  More than once I had to stop for a second and collect myself.

Breaking out of the rocky, rooty trails and on to a paved road felt strange on my feet.  Like standing on solid ground after a day on a boat.  I crossed the finish line in 37:36:42.  Less than 24 minutes before the cutoff, but I finished. 

Roberto Marron, the author, and Dallas Sigurdur early in the race.
photo: Londell Pease

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

No Apologies for a Great Summer

Recently I came to an Al-Anon style realization: there are at least two things I don't have to apologize for: being happy/excited, and being myself.  So I'm not going to apologize for having done some great races over the summer and I'm not going to apologize for being excited about the big Superior 100 mile race I'm running in a week and a half.  Not interested?  Don't read on!

Yoda & Buddha are friends.

I was afraid of showing off, bragging, or making a big deal out of some of the stuff I have done, but I'm over that for the moment so:
  • In May I ran the Spring Superior 50k.  Although my finishing time/place weren't all that great I had a wonderful time.  I met some new friends, enjoyed the big lake and the beautiful Sawtooth Mountains, and had a great night out in Grand Marais.  I haven't enjoyed myself so much for years!
  • In July I raced in the inaugural Iowa Games Gravel Road Race.  To my surprise I won!  It was a tough fought race on an extremely hot and dusty day, but I gave it everything I had and eventually came out on top.  
  • I did a couple of XC mountain bike races (one at Banner and one at Seven Oaks).  I didn't win or even come close (2nd to last at Banner), but I did learn a lot.  Going fast is hard and the limiting factor for me is cornering.  That spurred me on to practice and ask for tips and I feel that I've come a long way since then.  I can't say that I'm great shakes at it, but I think that the next time I do a 24 hour race I'll get a couple extra laps in because of it.  
  • I did my first triathlon two weeks ago.  Well, sort of.  I just did the bike portion as part of a relay team.  It was my first extended ride on an aerobar equipped bike and that was an experience.  I get why triathletes spill food and drink on their bikes and have crap bike handling.  Those bikes are not meant for turning!  The unfamiliar position caused me to have some sore muscles toward the end of my 56 mile TT, but our team managed a 3rd place finish in our division (Male Team).  Everyone was much friendlier than I had expected at a big time triathlon.  I might have to do an individual one next year.  
The TT bike.
  • Last weekend's race was a team event too.  I did a leapfrog duathlon (bike and run) in Dallas Center with one of the drivers who delivers to work.  He's a pretty good runner so I had my work cut out for me trying to not to let him down.  We managed 2nd overall and 1st in our age group (we were beat by some old guys).  It was a great little low key event for a very reasonable price.  
 So yeah, I've had a pretty good summer and I don't mind telling you.  Sure I "won" some races as an age grouper, but that's not what it's about.  It's about getting out there, doing my best, and enjoying myself doing it.

I am making a big deal out of the Superior 100.  Last year I thought I had it in the bag and didn't give the race the respect it deserves.  This year I have been training for it officially since June 1st and unofficially since I finished Trans Iowa.  If I have worked on something nearly every day for three months then I would say it's a big deal.  I'm going to give this race my very best and I'm not dropping out until the sweeps catch me.

Some new hardware (L to R: Iowa Games, Leapfrog, Pigman)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Why I run (and bike and ski and other bad philosophy)

(Apologies to anyone who is a pro or semi-pro philosopher or psychologist, this is sure to be cringe-worthy.)

I suppose every endurance runner/biker/skier/whateverer approaches the question of why they do it at some point.  Keeping in mind that the act preceded my reasons for it and that those reasons are sometimes contradictory and always elusive here are mine:

When I get down to it the primary reason for my participation in endurance events (I shy away from calling it sports and absolutely refuse to call myself an athlete even if those might apply here) is that old adage that you can only feel one pain at a time.  Have a headache?  Hit your thumb with a hammer, that'll cure it.  Same concept here.  If I'm miserable, feeling sorry for myself, or whatever I can run until the physical exhaustion becomes greater than the mental anguish. 

Once I've cut through the cynicism and self-hate that I'm prone to I find that I can see (more) clearly what is going on.  Sometimes a solution presents itself.  Sometimes I just see that what I'm worried about is not that big a deal after all.  It works a heck of a lot better than banging my head against a wall and I should know. 

I've been accused of being an "endorphine junkie" and maybe that's the case.  Maybe it is just escapism the same as drinking or something like that, maybe I have a problem, but it's a healthier problem than a lot of others that I could have.   Somehow people are more inclined to be forgiving when you tell them you ran 30 miles than if you tell them you're hungover. 

If it were just about getting a "runner's high" (which I don't feel I get anyway) then why race?  Why go any further than I have to?  Because I need that bigger goal to reach for.  I need an arbitrary outside motivation to gear my thoughts and training toward. 

One of the great things about endurance events is that it doesn't matter.  It is the thing without value that I give value to.  Nobody cares if I finish except me.  Nobody cares if I don't finish except me.  I do this for myself and no one else.  How many things are there that you can say that about?  How many things are there where you don't have to feel like someone else is depending on you?  My success in an event doesn't depend on anyone else and no one else is depending on me.  Maybe that's selfish.  I don't know, but I'm certainly of no use to anyone, least of all myself, if I'm miserable. 

The simplicity of being on my own is appealing.  During a race there is nothing that matters outside the race.  There are simple, discrete steps that have to be accomplished: eat, drink, keep moving.  Maybe there is a flat tire to deal with, a broken ski pole, but even that is straightforward.  Fix it, or not, and move on.  No avoiding the problem or passing it off on someone else.   And in the end you know whether you have succeeded or not. 

I am of the opinion that happiness is up to me.  No one else can make me happy, no outside event can either.  Maybe a stronger person wouldn't need to run or race or whatever, but I'm not that strong.  Maybe I will be someday.  Until then I'll be a selfish junkie.  

Why do you do this stupid stuff?

In other news: someone reminded me the other week that I have a folding boat so I decided to get out there and use it. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Sunday, May 06, 2012

TI Training, Gear, &c.

Here are my thoughts with respect to what did or did not (mostly did) work for me at my successful Trans Iowa ride.  

I did a lot of shorter rides this year.  Many weekend rides of just 100k and lots of evening rides of around 15 miles.  I probably did more miles in preparation this year, but fewer long rides.  I did a lot of running as well because sometimes it's just easier to get out the door and do that.  I think that running helps endurance and hill climbing, both of which I needed.  The warm winter didn't hurt my biking at all (it did hurt my skiing) and biking the Arrowhead reacquainted me with endurance biking.  A couple of weeks before the race I did a 100k ride that was at least half in a pretty severe thunderstorm.  I think that more than anything that reminder that I could keep going was good for me.

I have been called a cheap-grouch and I think I have to agree.  My Surly Cross Check is not expensive or flashy, but it fits me well and I am comfortable on it for hours on end.  Having ridden this bike and set-up (sort of) for 11 years certainly helps.  Some highlights:
  • I did build some new race wheels.  I am pretty easy on wheels compared to a lot of folks so I laced some Open Pros to DT 350 hubs with 28 14-15 butted spokes laced 3x.  That made for some pretty light (where it matters), but smooth riding wheels.  Pretty fancy for me, but nothing compared to what others are using.  
  • For tires I stuck with Michelin Jets which are nice and light with a fast rolling tread (no need for flat protection on Iowa gravel) aired to 70 psi.  
  • My WTB Rocket V saddle is nearing the end of it's life, but did fine.  
  • Planet Bike 2 Watt Blaze on the handlebars and a 1/2 Watt blaze on the helmet (which I removed as soon as it was light out) lit the way for me and I didn't feel like I needed a torch like some folks had even on steep downhills, but that may be overconfidence born of too much riding in the Des Moines river valley. 
  • I taped my bars with Planet Bike bar tape as always, but broke with tradition in two ways.  First off I put a little foam on the back of the handlebar from the brake lever around to the tops.  I rest my hands here 90% of the time so I wanted the surface to be a little broader to even out the load.  It worked great and I had no numbness in my hands!  The other break with tradition was the use of white tape.  It's pure decadence.  White looks great, but gets dirty easily.  Just something special for the big race.
  • As always I taped over the speed on my bike computer.  Speed is just a distraction from how I'm riding.  It's all about how I feel not how fast I'm going and I feel better when I don't know I'm slogging along at 8mph.  
  • My map holder is just a Ziploc bag reinforced with cardboard and duct tape.  It took me about 5 minutes to make and worked great.
  • As far as the "YES" goes it could mean anything.  It's whatever I need it to be, "Yes, keep going," "Yes, you should drink," "Yes, you're going to make it."  

Mental Training/Attitude: 
I maintain that the best way to train mentally is to train physically.  Riding in that thunderstorm was big.  I also have a bit of experience to look back on for inspiration.  Thinking back to skiing the Tuscobia Ultra with huge blood blisters on my feet, walking the last few miles of the Arrowhead when my hips and knees were giving out made me face how much Trans Iowa was going to hurt.  Knowing how much it can hurt makes it easier to bear and even makes it easy when things aren't that bad (which they weren't this year). 

I ate too much "performance" food this year.  I could have done with fewer Cliff bars and gels of all sorts.  I really wanted a Subway Sandwich or a plate of pasta at 1am, but I wasn't getting that.  String cheese did a lot of good and I could have used more towards the end.  Really though, I have learned that I can get by on just about any food so long as I eat. 

I know that I am a more comfortable a little cold than a little warm so I kept clothing versatile and to a minimum.  At times I was down to just my Cannondale shorts and Skunk River jersey.  More often though I had on leg and arm warmers and for the wet or windy times I had my well worn Bellwether jacket.  Gloves were an old pair of Salsa full finger gloves with minimal padding.  I kept what clothing I wasn't wearing in my frame bag and food in my jersey pockets.  My Camelbak was just for water, no gear.

I used Pearl Izumi X-Alp Seek cycling shoes.  They're a little odd, meant for hiking off the bike as well as riding, but they have served me well.  The wider last and use of laces rather than buckles make it the most comfortable shoe I've worn (there is still room for improvement however).  I suppose they're a little heavier and not as stiff as some, but for hike-a-bike (of which there was a little) they are more than worth it. 

Why didn't I make it in previous years? Weather, sometimes it's just not up to you.  Poor planning, one year I forgot sunscreen, a costly mistake.  Navigation errors which resulted from following the herd, and on the other side not being willing to work with a group when it would have been smarter. I think I always had it in me, I just had to get everything together. 

Friday, May 04, 2012

Riding Trans Iowa

I'm recovering quite well from Trans Iowa.  My knees still bother me a bit, but I can once again ride without grimacing in pain, even sitting down.

This years Trans Iowa was more of a mind-over-matter kind of event for me.  I knew I was in better shape and had done more training than for any previous ride, but somehow I didn't quite feel prepared.  I suppose you never can for an event like this.  There is just too much up to chance.  Still, I knew that my body was up for it and if I could just get my head in it I'd finish if it was humanly possible.

There isn't much to say about the race that hasn't already been said, but I'll try to give my take on it.

Hearing the wind, rain, and thunder through the night sure didn't help me sleep.  A part of me wanted to call it quits even before it started, but I knew I couldn't do that.  I had set my alarm for 3:30 AM, but woke up about twenty minutes earlier.  I had everything ready so all I had to do was dress, eat a sandwich and ride to the start.  It's much easier when everything is laid out the night before.

The rain had quit by start time, but the roads were still wet and there was a stiff wind out of the west.  Once we got off the pavement I made sure to settle in with a group so I wouldn't be fighting the headwinds alone.  I'm not much of a joiner when it comes to riding (or anything else), but I felt it was necessary to avoid burning out.

Once we headed south about 30 miles in the groups broke up a little and I rode alone quite a bit.  For a while I rode with Jeremy Kershaw and Jay Barre, but by Checkpoint Alpha (Montezuma, mile 53) I was alone again.  After CP:A I caught up with Charlie Farrow and rode with him and the guys from Lincoln for a while.  It worried me that I was riding with Farrow as I know him to be a stronger rider than I am.  He mentioned that the folks at the front were pushing it too hard and he expected some attrition.  I had heard that one before, but it was a reminder to keep riding within my limits and not push too hard (actually it turned out to be true).

At some point Farrow dropped me and was riding alone again.  I really do my best when alone on these ride/races.  My mind stays more focused, I make better time, and I have a better attitude.  So for the next ~200 miles I rode mostly alone.  I went through the towns of Hedrick and Agency, then crossed the Des Moines river near Eldon (we really should have ridden by the American Gothic house).  At mile ~170 I reached Checkpoint Bravo (the middle of nowhere), sat for a minute, ate an energy bar, and was on my way into the night.

Around mile 200 I arrived at Checkpoint Charlie (not a German to be seen) in Attica where I was told that I had just missed a group of riders headed by Dennis Grelk (last year's winner).  Now I had a carrot.  I felt like I had only ridden 100 miles so I started pushing a bit more, hoping to see their taillights ahead.

There was a beautiful long hill outside Pella that I'd like to see in the daylight sometime.  I was able to spin up it in my lowest gear without working too hard and it seemed to go on forever.

I finally caught up with the group at the convenience store in Pella (mile 230?), but they were ready to go and I needed to fuel up.  It wasn't until ten or so miles later in Galesburg that I caught them for good.

As soon as I started riding with the group I found myself falling asleep.  I just couldn't keep my eyes open. It was as though, now that I didn't have any goals but finish, my mind just began to shut down.  I'd feel okay for a few minutes, then terrible for a few.  I drank a 5 hour energy and felt great for about 20 minutes, then I was nodding off again.  I'd find myself unconsciously charging up the hills, following Dennis and then falling off the back of the group. 

Eventually Dennis broke away and then Mark Johnson (I think) followed him.  At this point I felt it was safer to stay with the group.  There were bound to be headwinds down the road. 

By the time dawn came it was down to four of us in the group: Mike Johnson, Corey Godfrey, Charles Parsons, and myself.  The gravel was getting rougher and we were still heading away from Grinnell.  I knew that couldn't last.  It was looking like we were going to spend the last 35 miles of Trans Iowa battling the winds. 

I finally knew for sure where we were when we arrived in Melbourne. It was going to be all fresh gravel, hills, and headwinds back to the finish.  I was hoping for a convenience store, but I was pretty sure Melbourne wasn't the place to find one.  We rolled through town, but didn't see anything and kept on going.  As we headed out of town I called out that I was stopping for a minute and everyone else should continue (I won't give the details of that stop, but was a desperate stop and involved venturing into nettles and poison ivy).  I was left to battle the course alone. 

I made a plan to ride 10 miles, rest, ride 10 miles, rest, and ride the final 10 miles.  I made it seven and had to stop, then another five, but I told myself that every turn of the pedals was getting me that much closer to the finish.  Conditions were horrible, I was happy that there were hills so that I could rest in the wind shadow on the way up.  It turns out I'm a better at climbing than fighting into the wind. 

As I took another break, sitting in the lee of a hill, eating a Cliff bar, I saw three riders approaching from behind.  I was disappointed that I had been caught, but decided to wait and ride with them.  When they got close enough I saw that they were the same group I had been riding with all night.  Just after Melbourne they had spotted a convenience store and stopped there (it turns out my trip to the bushes was unnecessary).  We teamed back up and agreed to ride in together. 

Things were going as well as they can 320+ miles into a race when we came to a final, unexpected B road.  It looked like it might be ridable and Charles charged ahead.  Corey wasn't so lucky and his rear derailleur clogged and tore out.  Mike and I stopped, but there was really nothing we could do.  Corey would either be able to fix it and ride in or he would walk.  We left him and walked the rest of the B road to be safe. 

Charles was out of sight and Mike was riding stronger than I was so our group was shot.  I rode in alone, as I had ridden the better part of the race, and was ready to be done. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

Trans Iowa Completed

It only took me four tries, but I finally made it. 328 miles hurts just as much as you think it would. Actually up until about 250 I was feeling pretty good. Then I got sleepy. I tried a 5 Hour Energy and felt great for about 20 minutes if that tells you anything. The last 50 miles were absolute torture; hills, headwinds, and loose gravel. No major equipment or physical problems. I don't know what I could have done better. I'll have more to write later this week.

 Thanks to (in no particular order) Guitar Ted, Jared Morford, Steve Fuller, Jeff Frings, Mike Johnson, Dennis Grelk, Mark Johnson, Corey Godfrey, Charlie Farrow, and everyone else who helped me buck the headwinds.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What I liked about Finland.

This post got a little bit out of control. Very little editing has been done. Also, to preempt the inevitable "America: Love it or leave it" comments, I would like to say that I don't know anyone who doesn't think the US could be better in some way.

Possibly the best part of my trip to Finland, and the primary reason I went, was the experiencing a culture and way of life different (at least a little) from what I'm used to. I was lucky to have a local guide (Jani) who was happy to show me around. Without him I expect I wouldn't have seen near as much as I did. That, in spite of sleeping a lot and reading comic books for (too) much of the time.

So, what was different?

Public transit:
The US, especially the Midwest is a car dependent culture. I don't own a car and I get by, but really, if I want to go anywhere outside of Ames I need a car. My first experiences in Finland were taking a bus from the airport to Helsinki and then a train from Helsinki to Lahti. This was a far cry from getting from Ames to the Des Moines airport. I had to beg friends to drive me to the airport here. Crazy. Needless to say I am in favor of more public transit options in the US.

Apartment Living:
Lahti is a city of about 100k, similar in size to Cedar Rapids where I grew up, yet in size it feels about the same as Ames, a city of 50k (according to Wikipedia however there is actually little area difference, so...). A lot of this has to do with how people live. Here virtually everyone lives in a single family home, at least anyone who can afford it. In Lahti (and I assume elsewhere in Finland) most folks seem to live in high rise apartment buildings. Walking around town I don't think I saw any single family homes.

The apartments are small by US standards, but they are hardly uncomfortable. Efficient design helps. Bathrooms are much smaller and there is no tub (like you ever use it). The whole floor is tile and drains to the shower, simple and obvious. Single beds are the norm. I don't know if you can buy a single bed in the US. When I bought the smallest bed I could (at IKEA no less) last summer it was a twin.

I doubt that Americans will give up their sprawling lawns, three car garages, and king size beds, but I wouldn't be opposed to it.

I did a lot of walking in Finland. Heck, I do a lot of walking here, but I'm weird like that. While walking I saw lots of other folks walking as well. Actually it was a little strange for me walking on crowded sidewalks. I'm used to having them to myself. A more compact city, less car traffic, and walk signals that actually mean something all make it easy to get where you're going on foot.

As a side note here, the Finns don't seem to use any salt on their sidewalks or roads. They do use a lot of gravel though. While the gravel does make the footing better it is not as easy as bare concrete. I suppose that because of our litigious habits here in the US salt is a necessity (with some businesses, notably banks, putting out so much salt that it seems there is more salt than snow), but people in Finland, even old ladies with walkers, seemed to navigate the sidewalks quite well. No one, with the notable exception of myself, ever slipped that I saw. I suppose an abundance of freshwater lakes make the idea of throwing salt in them more repugnant than it is here. We don't seem to much care where our drains go.

Public Space/Parks:
Even in town much of Finland is public property or at least publicly usable. When walking around Lahti we explored parks and green spaces of greater extent than I have seen in the US (Duluth might be the exception). A short walk from where I was staying there were ski trails with largely unrestricted access. Trails that in the US would have been either had limited hours and/or a day use fee. Not only that, but even on a day when world class skiers were out practicing the trails were open. In the US those trails would have been closed.

Relatedly, when we spectated the Lahti Ski Games we were allowed to get right up next to the ski trails. Here we would have been herded behind tape and into approved areas.

Again related, much of the Kaukopartio crossed private land, this made possible by Every Man's Rights. No getting chased off of private property by an angry man with a shotgun in Finland. I would dearly love to have something similar here, but even where laws allow stepping on private property here it is strongly discouraged.

For the most part the food was what I'm used to. Potatoes and carrots, ground beef, macaroni, but there were a few different things. Sweet pickles, while not too unusual here are a regular side dish. Muesli isn't just something you buy at the health food store. Bread is far heavier and darker than here. I now understand when a Russian friend from college complained about the lack of good bread in the US. There is nothing like it here, really, not even at specialty stores. No peanut butter. And no, there were no Soviet style bread lines.

And finally salmiakki. Salmiakki is weird and great. If you haven't tried it in candy or liquor form then you should and you will probably hate it. To say that it tastes like salty liquorice is an understatement. It is completely unique. It's too bad it's not available here. I'm hooked.

You may think you have been to a sauna, but you probably haven't. Hotel saunas with signs warning you not to throw water on the stones (löyly) don't count. After all, it's not the heat, it's the humidity. Second, you must be naked. Again, hotel saunas discourage this, but it's necessary. But with steam and nudity and a place to step outside into the cold or take an icy shower there's nothing like it.

Being naked around strangers is apparently no big deal for me (see above), but not being able to speak the language was deeply embarrassing. Fortunately almost everyone spoke English quite well which seems a little unfair. If you come to the US you'd best be able to speak English. Go to another country with a unique and difficult language, don't bother learning the language, just speak your own. In any case Finnish is apparently a very difficult language, but one I'd love to learn in spite of the fact that only .1% of the worlds population speaks it. I did manage to learn a few words, but mostly place names like saari (island), mäki (hill), järvi (lake), and katu (street) (in case you're wondering, "maki" means lemur). When I go back I intend to have at least learned my numbers.

Once again the good photos are by Jani, the bad ones by me.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

On track skiing and the Lahti Ski Games

In contrast to the road and off track skiing we did at Kaukopartiohiihto we also did a little skiing at the Lahti sports center and at the ski trails in neighboring Hollola. These trails might be a little more like what you think of when you think of cross country skiing. Freshly groomed corduroy and set classic tracks. Needless to say this is the worst kind of luxury for someone from Iowa. It makes you think that if only someone would make some nice groomed trails maybe you too could be a contender.

These are the same trails where, while we were at KPH, world class skiers (including Kikkan Randall) were racing. In fact, the days before the race when we skied there we were skiing right alongside those skiers who were testing skis and getting warmed up for the races.
(more skis than I'll ever have)

These trails also made it clear to me just how bad of a skier I am. My classic technique is bad and skating is even worse. I suppose I shouldn't feel too bad. I don't have trails like this near home and have only been skating for a year (and a bad snow year at that).
(just a few of the fastest skiers in the world)

Since I cut our KPH experience short we were able to spectate at some of the Ski Games events including the ski jumping final and the 1.4k classic sprint races. Ski jumping is something I had never actually expected to see in person so that was a treat. All I can say is that the jumpers make it look easy. I expect that when you get to the top of the hill it doesn't look so easy anymore.
(he's there in the center of the photo)

Watching the sprint race reminded me how much different the on piste skiing is from the off track skiing we had been doing the previous day. On track skiing is all about double poling. So much so that the Vasaloppet was won this year by a skier without grip wax on his classic skis. He double poled the whole 90km. I have always been taught that since my legs are larger than my arms I should be using them to ski, a philosophy I agree with, but good double polers use their abdominal muscles more than their arms anyway. I'll work on my double poling (it needs it), but I don't think I'll ever be converted over from the kick and glide.
(now that's double poling!)

Note: The good photos were taken by Jani, the bad ones by me.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Kaukopartio Ski Gear

Great, you say, but what does Kaukopartio have to do with the off-track skiing gear discussion? Well, after struggling with the army issue skis for 30km or so I started to "get" them.

Yes, the boots are floppy, but they are waterproof which came in handy skiing through a section of overflow on a lake. In Iowa I am often skiing on relatively thin creek and river ice. I'm careful of were I go, but when the water is shallow and I'm close to home I don't mind risking getting a little wet. It would be handy to have fully waterproof boots at those times. Other times, not so much. In extreme cold or when working hard having a breathable boot would be much more enjoyable.

In spite of the poor fit and complete unbreathability I got no blisters after 18 hours of skiing in completely new to me boots. How does that happen? I don't know, but I'm impressed. It's something to think about.

The cable bindings are heavy, but the boots are quite walkable. Without a bail or duckbill on the front I would have no problem taking off the skis and walking a ways in them if I had to. Some ski boots I've used are very nearly dangerous to walk in. Too slippery. During KPH I didn't have to walk, but again for marginal skiing this matters.

The skis were heavy, but huge and tough. When skiing over downed logs, through brush, and over gravel roads toughness matters. As far as huge goes the float that the skis had on deep snow was quite good. Much better than skinny racing skis. That's what skis are for after all.

I know that some of you have suggested that the Altai or Marquette skis would be good for this kind of skiing. Maybe you're right. The Altais especially look promising. My main concern is that they seem to be more aimed the BC/downhill crowd. More of a go up and ski down kind of ski. Not a get there kind of ski. Maybe I'm wrong about that.

Soon: a look at the Fischer Country and Europa 99.

Monday, March 12, 2012


We were lost. It was sometime past midnight and I was lost in a swamp in a foreign country. I didn't speak the language and I didn't have the camping gear I would usually have been carrying in a situation like this. The antiquated skis we were using had felt heavy 14 hours earlier when we started. Now it took an feat of will to move them. We had to get found, but how? I couldn't remember the last turn we had taken, and now the logging road we were following was trending south. Our map told us we should be heading north. I thought the map was at fault and the road would soon turn. My two companions felt differently. Janne wanted to backtrack. Jani wanted to strike out cross country.

My trip to Finland for the Kaukopartiohiihto competition was my last chance for a good ski outing. All winter, throughout the Midwest, there had been low to no snow. In Iowa, with marginal skiing in a good year, I had only been out on skis four times. My plans to ski the Arrowhead 135 race in International Falls had been thwarted by a lack of training. Finland was supposed to be a capstone trip, an easy cruise. It wasn't turning out that way.

Brothers Jani and Janne Kohonen and I arrived at the Utti military base, just outside Kouvola, early that morning, signed in, received our maps, and checked out our army ski gear. The skis, made by Järvinen, Karhu, and Peltonen to spec, were 1985 vintage. Solid wood with a p-tex base they weighed at least two pounds each. Exel poles with huge baskets, cable bindings, and rubber boots resembling galoshes (and offering just as much support) rounded out the blast-from-the-past equipment. My confidence that we could get through 150km of off-track skiing was wavering.
Easy going early on.

The equipment was only appropriate though. Kaukopartiohiihto translates to long distance ski patrol. We were honoring the memory of those Finns who fought in the 1939-1940 Winter War and 1941-1944 Continuation War with the Soviet Union. Numerically outmatched, Finnish ski troops were reported to have out fought the Soviets 30:1. More than a race, the Kaukopartiohiihto is part military exercise, part memorial, and part pure Finnish sisu.

The route was a mix of forest roads and a single narrow snowmobile track through the woods. Four 75 km routes made up the course and participants have 48 hours to do as many loops as possible. Sometimes the roads we were sent down were too well ploughed for good skiing (though not clear enough for good driving either). The tracks in the woods were often icy and woven tightly between trees, often diving down into ditches and climbing back out again. There were, of course, no course markers. We were utterly dependent on the maps and our wits. While we could often follow the tracks of those ahead of us these often diverged and left us to decide which way was right. Not every ski track was even part of the Kaukopartiohiihto. In Finland ski tracks in the woods are not the novelty that they are in the US.
Where are we?

Heavy skis, floppy boots, and uneven tracks not to mention poor skills helped me crash many times early in the competition. Several times I found myself floundering in deep snow having once again fallen while dropping into a drainage ditch. A little instruction from my skiing companions helped me out. By giving up on subtleties and getting assertive with the skis I started to get the hang of the old equipment.

All too soon it was dark and route-finding became even harder. Several times we missed our turns and had to backtrack. By the time midnight rolled around we were tired and maybe a little confused. That's how we ended up lost in the swamp. After some debate we realized that the road we were on was not in fact a road, but a logging track not marked on our map. Striking out cross country seemed like a very bad idea. A good way to get even more lost. Backtracking it was. We found the fork where we had gotten it wrong about one kilometer back and took the correct road.

At four in the morning we were back in Utti. We had managed just one 75 km loop in 18 hours. Going out for another 75 km loop wasn't very appealing. Jani and Janne were good sports and offered to go out again, but I knew they didn't really feel like it. I know I didn't feel like doing any more. We called it quits and were awarded a bronze medal for one loop. It was a good finish to a poor snow year.


Friday, March 09, 2012

Finland is awesome and you should go there.

I arrived back in town Thursday night after having spent a week and a half in Finland skiing and otherwise lazing about. It was great and, as my co-workers know well, I can't seem to stop talking about it. I haven't managed to collect my thoughts on it all, much less write them down, but I think I have come up with a sort of outline I want to follow to tell you about my trip. I plan on doing several separate blog posts each with a distinct theme. Here they are:

-Kaukopartiohiihto: that'd be the competition (it isn't really a race) that I participated in. Including Finnish Army skis, potato soup, being lost in a swamp, and some info that relates more or less directly to my earlier blog post about off-track skiing.

-Finnish Culture: including, but not limited to; language, saunas, salmiakki, tiny apartments, and crossing the street.

-Lahti Ski Games and how double polling is awesome: some talk about skiing with professional athletes, ski-jumping, spectating at a world cup event, and how bad I am at skiing.

Travel: Getting there by plane, train, automobile, and bus. Plus, why flying is still fun for me.

My plan is to get the first post on Kaukopartiohiihto up on Sunday evening. I'm telling you so that I have to do it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Skiing I Do

It has been a terrible winter, but, out of desperation, I have gotten out a few times. Four times to be exact and the best of them had me skiing on gravel some of the time. None of those times were on groomed trails. Snowmachine trail, river, creek, golf course, field, deer trail; that's where I ski.

That, along with the ubiquitous "where are the mountains," comments have me thinking about what to call the kind of skiing I do (when there is snow). First off when I say ski I always mean cross country skiing, there are no mountains around here. The only downhill skiing I do is down hills.

Based on the lack of skiers at Arrowhead and the excuses I hear the "real" Nordic skiers won't touch anything that isn't groomed or might damage their bases. I don't have any skis that aren't rock skis. I did cringe a little once when I did three miles of gravel logging road at Arrowhead in '08 (it had pretty good glide), but it's an unusual ski where I don't garf up the base. The real skiers also won't ski if the temperatures are low (like green wax condtions. Low temps are par for me (polar wax, except this year).

I would call what I do "backcountry" if that name hadn't been taken by the ski mountaineer/telemark/AT crowd (speaking of telemark, you don't need telemark skis to telemark. Not that I have any room to talk I can barely snowplow). Apparently these folks are the only ones who take their skis camping with them too.

I guess what I'd like to see is some kind of a resurgence in ski camping, touring, fun in the woods, rivers, and lakes. I'd like to see what happened to gravel road bike riding happen to cross-country skiing. A ski mode for the unmountainous, untracked Midwest with attendant discussions, events, and gear.

Maybe it's out there already and I just don't know about it. I hope so.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Yritän oppia suomea.

A number of people have asked me what my next event is going to be. I didn't want to say anything before it was a sure thing, but I will be going to Finland at the end of this month to compete in the Kaukopartiohiihto ski race. It's a sure thing now. I have my passport, plane tickets, and I'm even registered for the race.

It may sound strange to many of you globetrotters, but this is a pretty big event for me. It required me to leave home and actually talk with people to get this done. It will be just my second time out of the country (the last time was to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls) and my second time flying (commercially). Maybe that makes me sound like a sad pathetic loser, but I don't care: I'm going to Finland!

I'm not even going to complain about the weather.

Friday, February 10, 2012

AHU '12: Part 2

I forgot to mention that somewhere between Gateway and Ash River shelter I broke my chain. No big deal. I am a professional bicycle mechanic by day.

So anyway: After eating, refilling my Camelbak and bottle, and talking with some other racers I was on my way. In and out in 45 minutes: a new record! It was dark and I didn't know how far I was going to make it before I had to sleep. I was hoping to get to Myrtle Lake shelter or better yet Elbow Lake and then take a nap, maybe even give the shiv-a-biv a try. After the first couple of huge hills the trail flattened out and I was riding easily. I was leapfrogging with a couple of other cyclists, but it was clear to me that they were faster overall.

Time and miles have a strange way of passing in the dark. Every mile seems to take forever, but before you know it you're there. I think it has to do with being unable to focus on anything but the here and now. It's a feeling I look forward to. I crossed the Elephant Lake road then stopped at they Myrtle Lake shelter for a few minutes to eat and sit for a few minutes, then Highway 23. After that the hills started back up in earnest.

I've gotten to know this section of trail pretty well, even in the dark, these past few years. I knew there were hills and I knew there were more than I thought (if that makes any sense). Somewhere in here I ran across Nick Wethington whom I had driven up with. He had left Melgeorge's as I was arriving and I was surprised to see him. We talked for a minute, but I wanted to keep going and he needed to eat.

Before long I passed the meadow where I had had to refill my Camelbak the past two years. I was looking forward to arriving at Elbow Lake shelter. Although I wasn't really tired I decided I was going to take a nap when I got there. I figured I'd put on my down jacket and snooze for a while then, in an hour or so, I'd get up and move on. Just to prepare myself for the hills ahead. Yeah, right.

When I got to Elbow Lake around 2 AM there were already two people there. One person was just leaving. The other was Charlie Farrow. Charlie is something of a hero of mine so to find him here in his sleeping bag was something of a surprise. I had figured that he would be almost to the finish by that time. I stuck to my plan, laid out my pad and put on my jacket. I slept pretty well for not being in my bag. I napped for a while, but just wasn't getting any rest. I was too cold. Finally I gave up and pulled out my full sleeping bag. That was the end for me. There was no way I was going to leave soon.

After a few hours of sleep I got up to pee. Charlie asked if I was going. I said I was going to pee. He may or may not have said something at this point like, "I'm staying until the sun is up." I may have said something like "Good idea, wait for the hills to go away." Who knows we were all tired, maybe it was a dream.

When I opened my eyes again there was light in the East. I started to get up. Charlie jumped up like he had just realized this was a race. We packed up. I gave my toilet paper to another guy who had camped out with us and we were off. Charlie dropped me immediately.

Hills, hills, hills. Sometime in the night a groomer had been through. There were only a few tire tracks in the soft trail in front of me. As I was going up my tires started to dig in and I'd lose momentum. Then I'd push. After a couple of those I dropped my tire pressure down to about 6 psi. I was back to riding the hills. I took some pleasure in riding over the footprints of cyclists who had walked before me.

My 24 hour goal was gone and my backup goal of 30 hours was unlikely. I sat for a few minutes and refilled my water at the Teepee checkpoint then climbed the final hill, Wakemup. From there on it was flat.

The trail was rougher, but harder and I pumped my tires back up to 8 psi or so. I was finally able to use the middle ring and push a little harder. It's true though, after wanting the hills to stop it is only a little while in the spruce bog before you want something other than flat. I made myself some cold coffee at the final shelter and rode in to the finish. No big deal.

As I've said before it was a bit of a let down. In 2006 when I finished it was my greatest achievement to date. Now it was old hat. Next year skiing or maybe someone is selling a Conundrum.

Monday, February 06, 2012

AHU '12: another perspective Part 1

If the last post was how I felt (emotionally, etc.) at Arrowhead this one is about how the race went pedal-by-pedal. Hopefully it is a little more positive or at least neutral than the last one.

At the start I lined up with the skiers, just because I wanted to see who they were and what gear they were carrying. Lots of mid size backpacks (~35L). Not too many sleds this year. I guess that's passe now. Looking over the skiers got me started at the back of the biker pack. Did I mention that I was biking this year? Maybe you missed it. A lot of people did.

The first nine miles or so to the first shelter (old turnaround) were pretty uneventful. Fast smooth well packed trail. Bikers spread out a little, but not much. My legs felt slow. I felt like I should be passing other riders, pushing towards the front, but I held off. It's a long race.

Two of the skiers passed me early on. The first one was carrying a tiny pack and Wassberging (V2) along like nobody's business . The pack wasn't much larger than 20L. I wondered how he got all of the required gear in there. Likely he had nothing more than the required gear. No warmer gloves, jacket, etc.. What would he do in a more severe year? Likely not ski, I think.

After the turn onto the real Arrowhead trail I managed to distance myself from some of the other riders. I don't like doing endurance events with others nearby. I end up feeling too competitive and racing too early. The trail softened up and got pretty rough at this point. This part of the trail has less traffic and more grass and willows were poking through. This is also where the trail first passes through bog-land. Without snow and cold there would be no trail.

It was slow going, but I made sure not to push myself. Any time I noticed my heart rate creeping up (when I could hear it in my ears) I made sure to drop down to a lower gear and spin more. In spite of the flat trail I was spending much of my time in the granny gear.

We came to Highway 53 (mile ~18) fairly quickly I wasn't sure of the time, but it was nothing compared to how long it took to walk last year. Soon we came to a mile or so of logging road, then back onto the trail, and to the second shelter. I stopped for a few minutes to take a photo of the second place skier, Mike Ziegle, who was resting and eat some of my secret formula (cheese and sausage). Then I was off to the Gateway store.

On the way I saw the familiar landmarks: the trail junctions, the hills, the shelter, and finally what I call the "friendly tree" a lone white pine amongst the spruces that pokes up just before the Gateway store (I don't know why it's the "friendly tree". When you ski or walk the Arrowhead I guess it's good to have friends).

I didn't stop at the Gateway store. As I was coming in I saw that fast skier coming back out. He had backed off to a comfortable Mogren skate (V2a) at this point. I was really missing my skis.

I was pretty good on food and water. I wasn't cold. I wasn't in any kind of trouble so I just went on. At this point I still had the idea that I might go the whole way without support. On I went into the hills. I was happy to be riding most of them, but I knew that wouldn't last. I was spending a lot of time in the middle ring which made me happy. I figured I had passed a lot of people at the Gateway store and my competitive spirit got a little boost. The distance between landmarks got longer as I ventured into territory I hadn't seen in the light since 2006. I crossed Ash River Trail then Homan Road and Sheep Ranch Road. Then up the hill to Ash River shelter.

The Ash River shelter is one of my favorite spots on the trail. It is hidden from the main trail and located on a little spur to the left. Most racers miss it and don't even know it is there. I only know because Pierre pointed it out to me when we rode together in 2006. I spent the night there with Scott Wagner in 2008 on my first attempt to ski; the year I earned the Myrtle the Turtle award. I took a little break and ate some more cheese and sausage.

I rolled on into the real hills and had to start pushing some. I wasn't going really fast, but I felt okay. I knew there were only about 25 miles left to Melgeorge's resort on Elephant Lake. I can't think of any good landmarks in this section. I have seen it in the dark too many times and there aren't any road crossings or "friendly trees" that I know of. Just lots of rolling hills.

Black Duck shelter came soon enough. I was hungry for some "real" food a this point and so I fired up the stove and cooked up some freeze dried Teriyaki Chicken. Since I had the stove going I melted some snow just for fun and to make sure I didn't run out before Melgeorge's, 15 miles away. Mike Ziegle stopped for a few minutes and I talked with him about skiing. He was carrying a more normal sized pack and mentioned that if he made it to Elephant Lake he would double his miles for the year. I guess I gave up on skiing too soon. Other skiers might have training and technique on their side, but I have (relative) youth and stupidity on mine. The weather and the trail were holding for the skiers.

It was dusk as I left Black Duck shelter and soon enough I needed my headlights. More and bigger hills were to be had, but I managed to gear down and ride most. Landmarks were: the hill where it was too cold to wax my skis, the hill with the suicide turn at the bottom, the first 5 miles to Melgeorge's sign, the second 5 miles to Melgeorge's sign, and ski jump hill. Then suddenly I was out on the lake rolling easily towards the resort. I knew I could have just checked in and kept going, but the lure of soup and a grilled cheese sandwich (American quesadilla) was just too much. So much for my goal of going unsupported.

In the next installment: What happened at Elbow Lake shelter?

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Nothing Ventured Nothing Gained: Arrowhead 2012

The night before Arrowhead found me at the only Chinese restaurant in International Falls. I had just opened my fortune cookie and it seemed prophetic:

The only problem was that I wasn't facing defeat. I was taking the easy way out, not risking anything, by biking the race. I had planned on and trained for skiing all summer and fall only to be stymied by a lack of snow in December and January. It seemed like there was no other choice but to bike, but in the back of my mind I knew better. There was more I could have done. Days when I could have gotten out on roller skis, days when I could have skied on the river or on the golf course.

Even more prophetic was the back of the fortune cookie:

If ever there were a sign from the "master" this was it (I don't know about the numbers, maybe I should have played some roulette at the finish line casino).

The race was, in a word, uneventful. It was warm, too warm for Arrowhead. That took away some of the challenge, some of the cache of the race. It would be wrong to say that the race was easy. It wasn't, it was a hard ride and I was surprised by how difficult biking was, but it was too easy for my satisfaction. I never pushed myself to the edge of what I could do and pushing myself is why I go to races like this.

My goals for the race were not well defined. I had visions of doing the race in under 24 hours or at least under 30. Then I had ideas of touring the race, taking photos and not stopping to rest and refuel at any of the checkpoints. Those two goals didn't mesh well with each other and at different points during the race one or the other was ascendant. I didn't manage to accomplish either one. It was an unsatisfying way to race.

As the skiers and runners finished the race I couldn't help but feel somehow left out. Like they had had the full Arrowhead experience that I had denied myself.

All that said I did have a good time. It was great to see old friends and inspiring performances. Especially from Jason Buffington, Casey Krueger (who showed what a real skier can do), Lisa Paulos, Roberto Marron and Alica Hudelson. Those last three embody courage as the fortune cookie defines it. I will be back, just not on the bike.