Monday, November 13, 2017

The Rock

I paced barefoot across the sealed concrete floor of our new 450 square foot living space, recalling highlights of my professional career in an attempt to sound like an appealing hire to the recruiter on the other line. By now, I was well practiced at the charade, having been on the job hunt for the better part of the summer, now spilling into mid fall. A ten point buck casually strolled pass the glass pane door outside, shoving his nose lazily into the light brown pine straw. Half an hour later, I thanked the nice lady, hung up, and went back to checking my inbox for any news, any sign that someone wanted to hire me. There have been many seasons in life that I had to choose to trust that what I was going through was worth it, and that it was in fact possible to be content in all things, even when I don't know what the next day will bring, what news is coming and when, whether it will be another declination email from an overworked hiring manager or, in rare cases, an offer for another interview.

Since the upswing following the economic downturn, demand for jobs in Bend has been burgeoning; a large contingent of highly skilled Californians have been willing to accept less pay in return for a job in the city. We knew it would be a risk moving here and I'd gotten to the point where I sent my resume to just about any open position that had the word "engineer" in the title. I came to the conclusion that my dream job of working for a company that values life in Central Oregon as much as life in the office would probably not come to fruition for several more years. I was okay with the idea that I would have to settle for something now in exchange for living in my dream city.

* * *

Over the week leading up to Halloween, Kinsey told me she had some friends coming down from Alaska to run an Ultra, not 40 minutes from town. I looked up the race and noticed there was a 50k option; following our trip to Kona for Kinsey's debut at the World Championships, I developed an itch. I wasn't particularly keen on racing on the Big Island but for some reason, I was ready to race again. Fall has always been my favorite time of year to train and race. Some of my most indelible memories out on the single track were forged around the same time the leaves changed shade and littered the ground. Though my longest training runs over the summer topped out at 90 minutes, I could hardly resist the temptation to register.

Following my most recent effort at a 50k in January of 2012, a string of injuries ultimately pushed me out of ultra-distance trail running and into triathlon. I didn't want to be done, though, and indeed, I managed to register for the Mountain Mist 50k for what would have been my 5th year in a row to compete. Sadly, my achilles wouldn't have it. I didn't understand much about injury prevention at the time and took for granted the need for maintenance work on my body. As more time separated me from long days on the trails, I learned to manage the issues and take a more proactive approach to running injuries. Still, six years later, I wasn't 100% sure the pains wouldn't come back; I needed to prove to myself that I could do this again.

The monolithic facades of the ridge lines in Smith Rock State Park were still cast in shadow as the race director of Run the Rock 50k gave us a few short lines of instruction about today's race. Within the first mile, we'd be tackling Misery Ridge to get our legs woken up before heading out towards Grey Butte and returning through Skull Hollow. The single track carved along the sides of the hills yielded stunning views of desert valleys and Cascade Peaks, capped in the season's latest snow fall.


Two hours in and I was getting a rude reminder that I had not fully prepared for this distance. I'd done plenty of races and training sessions that had been in excess of four hours but never solely on my feet. My lungs and heart had plenty to give but my running muscles were not happy with me, threatening to seize up in areas I'd never had problems with before. In many respects, I was traveling uncharted territory. I had to keep reminding myself to calm down, be patient, don't look at your watch, stay positive, breath right. This won't be forever.

For the next three hours, I fended off the voices telling me this was a stupid idea, that I'm not the ultra runner I once was, that everyone here is stronger than you, walk, stop, find a ride back to your car, go home. Or...just run to the next flag, keep moving, continuous forward motion, be patient, it's supposed to hurt, remember how much you have to be thankful for. I fed of the small stream of positive thinking and eventually made it through to the last aid station atop a climb that I thought would never end.

I scarfed down a slice of crepe and nutella and eased my sore legs down the long, dusty trail to the finish. So much of the race was a struggle to ignore the pain and press on and that was made all the more difficult by how little of the trail was actually flat. Though it was by no means a dominating performance, I beat my biggest competitors that day: the course and my own head. While the South has so many good tails and forests to offer, I'd fantasized many times about going out West for a long race, to experience those vast landscapes where you can see for miles and climb the biggest mountains you could imagine. After missing out on Mountain Mist back in 2013, what would have been my 20th ultra distance race of my career, toeing the line at Run the Rock after a 30 mile drive from my new home was an incredibly humbling experience and a powerful reminder about how much my Father cares about the details.

* * *

For the second time, I buttoned up one of my new "work" shirts for a meeting with some more folks at G5, one of the fastest growing IT companies in Oregon, specializing in digital marketing and bringing your dog to work. I'd already had one face to face interview two weeks before so hopefully a second was a good sign. When I initially applied for the position, I had few hopes of making it to the phone interview stage. On paper, it seemed I did not have enough years experience and the likelihood that I would land a job at a company that's made it on Outdoor Magazine's top 100 places to work list three years running seemed slim. Following the second on site interview, I was told they would get back to me in the next few business days.

Not two hours after returning home, I got the call. My first day is the Monday after Thanksgiving. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

A Zipp Down Memory Lane

The climb up Hurricane Ridge was longer than I remembered from when we made the drive two summers ago. The scenery was at least as beautiful. It was as if civil engineer and Intelligent Designer collaborated to produce the cleanest road with the most luscious backdrop possible. Emerging from a series of quarter mile long tunnels, the pride of the Olympic National Park peaks laid bare before me while the high altitude sun sapped away my sticky sweat. Mile markets came and went around s-shaped corners, each bearing resemblance to the last. After a solid hour of climbing, I thought surely the visitors' center, perched about 5000 feet above the Straight of Juan de Fuca, would be around the next corner. Mile marker 15, 16, 17, it must have been close. The air, ever thinner and cooler, turned my forearms a faded shade of red; it was far too warm at my starting point to even consider taking arm warmers.

Pedaling around the final corner, I avoided spending too much time around the hundreds of tourists, ambling around trying to snatch a good picture for their scrapbook before heading back down the mountain in their comfortable Lexus.

Every curve of the descent was just wide enough to take at full speed. It took at least forty minutes before I found a positive gradient in the asphalt again. I'd been pining for a return trip to Port Angeles for the sole purpose of knocking out this HC climb; three months ago, Kinsey and I were far too wrung out from Ironman Victoria to even entertain such a venture. Two years ago, we had the same problem...there was also the matter of getting married that needed attending to. This year, she was busy gallivanting with the bridesmaids for a friend's upcoming wedding in Port Townsend about an hour down the road while I had some time to explore the west side of the Olympic Peninsula. I was invited as well, at least for the wedding part, so rolling into town Sunday morning, I had all my newly purchased formal wear pressed and ready for the big day. As with any big day, of course, I needed to get an early start in order to get my run in before I was expected anywhere else.

The single track around Anderson Lake State Park was unpretentious, but well maintained. A single motor home with the words "off-duty" hung from a sign near the driver's door, sat on a faded green patch of sharp grass. Warning signs greeted would-be swimmers of the toxic algae in the water this time of year. The trail map looked like a plate of colored wet spaghetti dropped around a blue plate, and promised everything from horse trail to technical mountain bike routes, so it took me no time at all to find a suitable starting point. My training lately had been feeling exceptionally good. While my daily energy levels hadn't really been a problem before, ever since I switch to the less conventional high fat fueling plan after Ironman Canada, I'd been feeling even better. Maybe I'm numb to the feeling at this point, but a runner's high isn't something I really find myself experiencing on day to day runs. When I do, though, it's really something special. About four miles into my workout, I was flowing with ease over the soft dirt path laden with horse hoof prints (and the occasional sign of a bowl movement). I was in the proverbial zone in every sense and the climbs felt as easy as the flats, the undulations as effortless as the smooth soil.

I was oblivious to the jagged root that caught my left foot on a sharp descent. Pain as sharp as quills raced from my anterior talofibular ligament to the top of my brain while my internal emergency response system rushed inflammatory fluids to the epicenter of the injury, immobilizing it as much as possible. It took me forty minutes to limp the mile and a half back to the van, a thousand different thoughts racing through my head. At the wedding that evening, my new dress shoes hardly improved the situation, and I sought the comfort of chairs as much as possible, though the lemon pie, rich vanilla cakes, and mult-colored macaroons helped take my mind off the pain if only for a moment. The Ironman 70.3 World Championship, this year's A race that I qualified a year ago for, was in two weeks.

 * * *

It's impossible to quantify the distance I've come, physically, spiritually and otherwise, since racing in the Rock/Creek trail series nearly eight years ago, running ultra distances along Racoon, Lookout and Signal Mountain trails, long before I'd ever swam a single lap or considered paying more than $200 on a bicycle. But all the familiarity of the Chattanooga scenery gave me confidence that I had something like a home-field advantage.

The week leading up to the race, I could only hope and pray that the stars would align on Sunday, September 10, 2017; many indications suggested they may not. Kinsey and I stayed in a friends' house whom we'd had the pleasure of getting to know in Fairbanks before he moved back to his hometown of Chattanooga. As it turned out, we also had the pleasure of watching his cuddly Great Dane while he was away for the same five days we were in town. The moment a squirrel showed up on Duke's radar, the walk quickly turned into crisis aversion; it would just be my luck that I got a matching shoulder injury from restraining 130 pounds of K9. Fortunately, I eventually got the hang of of it, at least enough to keep my humerus in place.

The day of the athlete's banquet (which to my great amazement, was serving pulled pork, slaw, corn bread, and string beans instead of the stereotypical pasta), we found out that a good friend of ours from Fairbanks, who had come down for the race, was rushed to the hospital for a mysterious blood clotting issue. Kinsey also wasn't feeling great, albeit wasn't knocking on the door of the ICU. The week before, while dealing with my sprain, I found out that we had issues with our own health coverage. Both of us have been applying for job after job in Bend with no success over the last few days. The five nights before Chattanooga, we'd been traveling so much that each night was in a different bed (though all for the sake of a much needed visit with family and the lake house). My head was in a really weird place that Friday night and it took until Kinsey crossed the line for her own race for me to finally buck up and get focused. Still, the ankle was an unknown...

* * * 

The Lookout Mountain Scenic Highway was swollen with competitors, all in their most aerodynamic positions screaming back down the hill towards the 35 mile mark of the 56 mile course. From the moment out of T1, I was passing other riders in slower waves; I had started in wave 10 out of 13 so most of use were bound to have the same difficulty. I'll save my protestations of the race format for another forum. At around 45mph, I was a significantly faster descender than most of the other riders (it was mainly physics to blame). Trying to pass at speeds like this can be dicey at best. Add to that the fact that this road, somehow, was not closed down to traffic, that no one got seriously injured is astonishing. Smoothly as I could manage, I maneuvered over the double yellow lines to avoid slamming into the back of a descending car when it hit the brakes, itself trying to avoid a group of riders in front. On any other day, this hill would have been great fun to dive bomb but the perils ran high today. At one point, my front wheel hit a reflector on the road; my heart skipped a beat but my Zipp 808 carbon rims had enough inertia to keep me in a straight line. It took several flat miles before I finally regained my composure. The roads running back into town were just as crowded as the ones on top of the hill. More than once, I had to surge to get around groups of riders, many of whom should probably have been carded for some amount of drafting. At times, it was nearly unavoidable as congested as it all was, but I had to keep reminding myself to focus on what I could control and let nature run its course otherwise. 

Rolling back into T2, I realized the last 2.5 hours could have gone a lot worse. The penalty tent was overflowing with rider's whom the race officials actually caught (it's a wonder their moto's even had room to ride safely on that course).

My parents and grandparents were waiting for me along the first kilometer of the run. So far, the ankle was holding up, or at least, any pain from it was silenced by the pain from elsewhere. There was no sense in trying to determine where I was compared to the rest of my age group. Thousands of runners clotted the roads and sidewalks and I didn't even try to keep count of how many I was passing, or how many caught up to me. The Tennessee River was 80 feet under my legs, crossing Veteran's Bridge for the first of two times. Kinsey was yelling something encouraging, but by then, I was able to process sentences about as well as food. I knew it was something good, though.

The 13.1 miles were a lot more hilly that I had expected, indeed there were scarcely stretches longer than a few hundred yards that had a level surface. Over the last three 70.3 races I'd completed this year, I think I've finally arrived at an intuitive sense of how to pace 3.5 hours into the race. My Garmin beeped mile splits at me but there was simply no use in tracking them; each mile was so different, it didn't give me any useful information. Crossing the bridge a second time, Kinsey's cries of support fell on a much more battered body than 40 minutes ago. I struggled up the last three hills but knowing that my season was nearly over, that everything I'd worked for this summer was at a head, kept me pushing. I was not about to let a little bit of overwhelming pain to keep me from crossing the line strong.

A short, latin-skinned runner in a white and blue tri suit appeared on my left shoulder and made a pass on the inside of the second to last corner before the finish. A thousand negative voices championed their collective suggestions for me to slow down, to let him go. My muscles were in great pain and were due to cramp up at any second. Maybe they had a point. With just a quarter mile left, though, the M-dot banner was in sight. A single voice of defiance flushed away the negativity and for a very brief moment, the suffering from every nerve ending was silenced, just for the sake of getting over that line a few seconds faster.  Another runner, celebrating ten meters too early, realized his mistake too late. 

* * * 

 Special Thanks

Two thousand seventeen has been a season like no other and I'd be remiss if I didn't take a moment to acknowledge some people that made it happen for me, if only on a lowly blog post. I've had the incredible privilege of representing the US Military Endurance Sports Elite Triathlon Team over five triathlons and multiple bike races this year under the direction of Dan Frost. Mandy Midgett for all the work and time she's poured in to the USMES triathletes. Kinsey's parents, Donna and George, have been generous enough to allow us to stay at their beach house all summer while we pursue our deepest passions for the sport without the distractions of a nine to five. Graham Wilson from the Wilson Coaching Group, my coach of four seasons, has helped hone me into the athlete and man I am today. I'd be a fraction the triathlete if not for his guidance. A huge thanks for him for putting up with my "engineer brain" that always seems to be after more data and studies than I know what's good for me. My parents played a huge roll in supporting us for Chattanooga along with the rest of my family that fed us, hosted us, and let us have the lake house all to ourselves for a night. Kinsey has been the greatest friend and training partner I could have ever dreamed of, and I'm honored to be the man to support her on her road to Kona this year.

I can honestly say that, as I write this, I know very little about what the 2018 season holds, about where I'm going to work or even live, but I do know the One who holds the future. If my past is any indication, it's above and beyond all I could ask or imagine.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Whistler

A beleaguered runner crossed the threshold of the red and black Ironman banner as hundreds of endurance fans and earlier finishers yelled cheers of collective achievement. The announcer let the world know who the worlds' most recent Ironman finisher was as his voice was projected throughout this small valley in the Fitzsimmons Range. Over a mile away, I was enjoying a few moments of soft evening sunlight while two pairs of smoked sausage finished cooking over the propane grill. I was nearly equally impressed with the longevity of the MC's voice as I was with all the athletes that stuck to their task for many hours after Kinsey and I had finished the same distances.

* * *

Peering over a large crowd at the shoreline, I watched the first professional female emerge from Alta Lake and glide into the changing tents after her 2.4 mile swim. A long line of athletes eventually followed before I finally set about starting my warm ups, but not before many minutes were burned standing in long port-a-potty lines. The 140.6 athletes started two hours before the rest of us would begin our journey of half the length. Due to logistics considerations, I'm assuming, we had to wait around the starting area for that full duration. Mentally, I had been ready to start this thing over 24 hours ago. 

I've been listening to more and more podcasts and audio books lately on the various topics of my sport. It's curious how, even in an hours' worth of playback that's full of all manner of helpful tips, often we only walk away remembering a single line of text. Sometimes, though, it's all you need. Last week, a line really stood out for me: "positivity is a performance enhancer." I've gained more and more appreciation for the role your head plays in races like this, and not just during the 4.5 hours of the racing itself. For at least 24 hours prior to the gun, I made it a point to simply smile (usually just to myself) and take a moment of gratitude that I get to race through the Olympic Village in Whistler, BC, that I get to take this whole summer to pursue one of my greatest passions, that I get to do it all with the one I love. 

The wind picked up some speed since the full Ironman swimmers vacated the lake. Though the waves looked small from the grassy shore, they seemed to gain a considerable amount of girth as soon as you tried to plow your head through them. In lieu of the traditional "wave" starts, where an entire age group starts in the water at the same time, we were allowed a rolling start where we would walk single-file across a timing mat that recorded your time as soon and you entered the water instead of lumping it with the group. I positioned myself about two dozen swimmers back so I'd have some feet to chase over the next 2000 yards. Into the headwind, it was often laborious to try and sight the next buoy. Half the time, all I'd see was another wave about to lap over my head. Fortunately, the shore wasn't too far away and we were swimming parallel to it, making sighting a little easier. I overtook about four swimmers in the first 10 minutes, lifting my energies a bit, instilling some confidence for the next four hours. 

After rounding the first of three turning buoys, sighting became even more difficult, now that the sun had popped over Blackcomb Peak, staring us directly in the goggles. I made an effort to simply follow the swimmer in front of me and hope they knew where they were going.

Turn buoy number two. I swung a bit wide before cutting in to start the return leg. Another swimmer holding a tighter line was over my right shoulder. Before I knew how close I was, I got a face full of heel and let out a water-muffled "uff." My right lens filled half way with water; my nose, notorious for it's frequent bleeding episodes, was suddenly throbbing. Sensations from the mild fatigue building in my shoulders was drowned out by the sudden pain in my face. There was no other choice than to keep moving. For a moment, I thought about rolling to my back to let the water out before moving on...no, that would only cost me unnecessary time. I kept my head down, my arms high, and my feet kicking.

The final turn buoy. We took a left and headed back to shore. By now, the wind was at its peak, it seemed, and any time you turned to breathe to the left, you could expect a mouth full of lake as the small swells were building. I could see the transition banner, but it seemed to take forever to get there. I got boxed in between two other swimmers and passing would have been a waste of energy. By now, I was practically punching my fists into the water in order to keep a straight line with all this cross wind. I spotted the tip of an algae plant extending from the lake bed; we were close. The bottom of the lake drew near faster and faster until I was able to stand up, jog to the wetsuit strippers, and execute my transition. 

* * * 

The bike course was strewn with fellow athletes doing the full distance on roughly the same course. I was passing riders at an ever increasing rate, paying as much attention to my power numbers as I was the other racers. I don't remember if it was a spectator shouting at me or just a general hunch I had, but I thought it may have been possible that I was the 70.3 race leader. 

My semi-textured tires absorbed pothole after pothole as I weaved around the Sea to Sky Highway en route to Pemberton. The descent toward the second turn around was more extreme than I anticipated. With my chin scratching my aero extensions in an attempt to avoid as much air resistance as possible, I ended up taking a few risks down these surprisingly fast and twisty corners. I topped out at over 53 miles an hour before finally making it to the bottom, only to pedal right back up. 

* * *

"The zone" is a mental state many athletes have experienced. While definitions online and in books abound, about all the neurotransmitters your brain releases during periods of intense focus and exertion that make hard efforts feel like nothing, that warp your sense of time and space, there are really few words you can use to truly describe the feeling.  

* * *

Any thoughts about that final, heroic, climb out of Pemberton were gone. Those extraordinarily fleeting moments of the glory of being race leader were now, inexplicably, in the past. (After the second turnaround, the roads were free of 140.6 athletes and at that point I had the road to myself and knew I was out front). The present was now a game of pacing and body temperature management. 
I've learned so much about how to race 70.3's this season; between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, I'd only raced that distance a total of three times. With still another race to go, I'd already matched that number since early June. My fine tuning had come down to preparation for the run, where my races have been made or broken. 

I allowed three or four runners to cruise on by me as I kept reminding myself to stick to the plan. Forcing gel after gel down my neck every twenty minutes, my pace ended up being relatively even considering the elevation. In the back of my mind, I kept remembering all those other breakdowns I've had in past races and was trying to run conservatively to avoid the crash. 

A white and blue floatplane fired up its engine, preparing to sail above Green Lake, probably so the pilot could get a better view of the race. Running back off the boardwalk for the second time today, the 10 mile out n' back portion of the run was rapidly getting closer to the finish line. About this time in the race, I expect to be running on fumes, hoping that nearby competitors were as eroded away as I was. With 5k left, this was not the case today. Lighting up the afterburners, my legs could still respond. My new nutrition strategy worked. I'd managed to take in nearly 1400 calories over four hours and couldn't stomach another gel or sip of warm UCAN. The effort was hurting but it wasn't impossible. Those runners that passed me on the loop to Lost Lake six or seven miles ago were now back in sight. Giant red bull's eyes lit up their backs, at least in my mind's eye. As soon as I brushed shoulders with them, I surged, attempting to make it look like I was running faster than I really was, discouraging any potential counter attacks. With 1k to go, I managed to catch one last runner, clawing my way back up to fourth position. 

Not long after my timing chip crossed the mat, I started wondering if I couldn't have taken a few more risks earlier on with my pace. While the run wasn't terribly slow, and I wasn't reduced to walking at all this time, I can't help but think that there's a lot more potential there. The thought was fleeting, though, as my attention turned to the fact that I just won my age group for the first time in an Ironman event and that I had smoked sausages waiting for me back at the condo.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Ironvan

I plucked a soft, green clover that had slipped into my cycling cleat from the floor of our transition area. The familiar buzzing atmosphere of race day morning nudged my heart rate a little higher than its normal resting tempo. Under the artificial rays of temporary light stands, I completed my set up and gradually shook my sleepy legs awake. While the cool air of a 5 a.m. Victoria morning was nearly an ideal way to start a race, the cobwebs of sleep still wrapped our quads and lats. Emerging from the water on the other side of the 1.2 mile swim, I wasn't really sure where I fell in with the rest of the athletes. There were still many bikes in the transition area; that was typically a good sign. I passed several riders who were having a little difficulty navigating the first few technical miles of the course and settled in to a strong flow, the rhythmic whine of carbon rims shrugging off wind resistance beneath me. Once on the gravel run course, I attempted to hold on to an ambitious pace, spurred on by the presence of a few professional woman racing along side me. At five miles, it was clear this strategy was not going to work today but by the time I figured that out, it was too late to put that lost fuel back in the tank.

My first half Ironman of the season was yet another hard learning experience. After about eight continuous days in the car driving from Fairbanks to Seattle, I tried to blame my collapse on a disrupted schedule, too much time pushing pedals, too little time in my own bed. Perhaps those had something to do with it but in a race lasting more than four hours requiring specific training in three disciplines, the number of factors tend to multiply. Notwithstanding, I was already looking forward to my next Long Course by the time Kinsey and I arrived in our temporary summer home of Ocean Park, Washington.

* * *

The banner sign reading "World's Longest Beach" slipped by the driver's side window as we made our way along Pacific Way toward the beach house. In fact, Long Beach, Washington is home of the world's 8th longest beach and is over 120 miles short of the actual world record holder. Perhaps that monstrous frying pan hanging near the town center could lay credit to a world title, but not the beach. 

Ten miles down the road, we pulled in to our final destination, marking the completion of our journey that started from Fairbanks, then rolling through the Yukon, the length of British Columbia, and the State of Washington, with a week long detour in Victoria for the aforementioned race and Port Angeles for a two year anniversary revisit.  

Standing tall in the driveway in all its glory was a brand new, 1989 Chevrolet G20 van. For the last month, Kinsey, her parents and I have been drawing up plans for a camper van that we could take to races all summer. The price was right and the mechanics said the engine was in good shape after 190,000 miles. Donna and George had worked on converting it into a van suitable for triathletes during our trip down: extra storage and bike mounts in the back, an extended bed almost big enough for the both of us, and a battery pack we could use to charge our phones and jump the battery when I inevitably leave the lights on for too long. The first time I attempted to open the drivers door from the inside, I pulled the handle towards me, instead of up in a counter clock-wise motion parallel to the door. The 28 year old piece of alloy snapped right off in my hand and for the next week while the replacement was on its way, I had to wait in the chair until Kinsey walked around and let me out. It was quickly apparent that there would be a bit of a learning curve.

The steering wheel has a few good extra inches added to it's diameter so you know you're diving something that nearly takes up a full lane. Driving the thing felt like handling a garage; changing lanes became a challenge at times with the blinds and curtains on the side windows making it difficult to check you blind spot. One needs a little more time to turn onto a busy road when zero to 60 takes something like 30 seconds. I think in a state like Oregon, though, most people respect, and indeed, revere vans of this vintage and majesty, at least, that's the assumption I'm going with. 

* * *

Between races, we decided to take a test road trip of the van through Yakima, WA, then through the Columbia River Gorge, after which we were able to work out a few kinks and were ready for a longer trip out to Bend, Oregon. After all the loading and unloading of bikes and other gear in and out of a stuffed Forester for seven days along the Alcan Highway, we were well prepared for a less stressful, shorter adventure in the newly christened Chevy. 

Heading east from Salem, the road gradually pitches up as the elevation goes from near sea level to 4,000 feet. Cedars and ferns are replaced by firs and juniper and the temperature rises as the road does, at least this time of year. Approaching the pass between Three Fingered Jack and Mt Washington, the highest point along this stretch of road, we hit some construction.

The flagger bid us stop as the oncoming traffic used the one open lane to cruise by. No sooner had a put the van in park did we detect the first signs of a problem. At first, there was a weird noise coming from the engine, immediately followed by a heart-sinking plume of smoke coming from under the hood. After pouring what little water we had into the coolant tank, we timidly made our way to the top of the hill to the nearest place we could find to pull over, leaving behind a huge puddle of coolant on the road behind us. Having little knowledge of engines, let alone ones manufactured before I was born, I was desperate for help. A good Samaritan who happened to be leaving the camp ground stopped and gave us nearly two hours of his time, attempting to diagnose what the issue was and deciding whether or not we ought to tow. Water was leaking out of a hose leading from the radiator almost as soon as we put it in. The pump was blown. After a long phone call with my gearhead brother, we started down the hill in the hopes that we could make it to Sisters about 12 miles away where Kinsey's parents would be waiting for us to take us all the way to the campground in La Pine, another hour down the road. 

A trip that was supposed to be seven hours ended up taking nearly 11, but at long last we made it. Sleep fell over our eyelids quickly after we crawled into the beds of Donna and George's trailer. 

* * *

The Pacific Crest Long Course triathlon was in three days. The point to point race took competitors from the Wickiup Reservoir, around Mount Bachelor to the resort town of Sunriver, offering a semi-flat, exposed 13.1 mile run after a bike ride that reached nearly 6,000 feet of elevation. The mechanic we left the van with was swamped and had said the van might be ready by Friday evening at the soonest. In fact, we would not see it again until after the race on Saturday.

La Pine State Park offered us plenty of healthy distraction as we tried not to think too much about race day or the state of our venerable van. We took advantage of the dusty trails and took Luna down to a river bend in an attempt to get her to swim. As much as she obsesses over every last stick she can find, apparently she draws the line when her paws can't touch the bottom of the river any more, while her play toy slowly floats away in deeper waters. 

Kinsey's coach, Matt Lieto, invited us to swim at his group on Thursday. After the warm up, he had each of us introduce ourselves as there were several new faces there today. On our way to the pool, Kinsey impressed upon me the caliber of triathletes we'd be splashing around with that morning. Among others, third place finisher at the Ironman World Championships, Heather Jackson was in the lane next to us. But this was Bend, and as I would learn over the ten days we spent there, training next to this kind of talent was not uncommon. 

Saturday. The extended forecast promised highs nearing three digits. The bright orange dome had only just crept over the smooth reservoir waters and we could already feel the warmth building. I met my teammate, Brett King, at transition and conveniently situated my bike next to his. I wanted to work with him today as much as I could so we could potentially both represent USMES on the podium later that day. 

The next time I saw my bike, heart rate spiked, head dripping, I knew Brett had beat me out of the water. No matter. The bike course, while reportedly hilly-ish, was one of the more enjoyable rides in a half ironman I think I've ever done. Settling into race pace felt good this morning. Watching my head unit carefully, I ate the precise number of calories that I had planned ahead of time and the right points along the course, expending no more or less energy than necessary at this point in the race. A little less than half way in, I caught my teammate. We were both looking steady but I knew he had a strong half-marathon left in his legs. I didn't know it at the time, but I was in second, behind six time winner Matt Lieto, the only male professional on the course today. 

The descent into Sunriver was screamin' fast and for a lot of it, I was moving too quickly to even turn the pedals; I was out of gears. With about 15 miles left, Curtiss Feltner, one of Matt's athletes, cruised past me. I kept him in my sights and as the road flatted out, overtook him. Twelve miles left. He passes me again. Not wanting to violate any drafting rules or dip to deep into my energy reserves, I opted to hold his pace until we reached T2. 

With ice bags down the front of my suit and my handheld bottle securely around my wrist, I did my best to settle into what promised to be a tough half marathon. I started out pretty slow and controlled, not wanting to make similar pacing mistakes as I had a few weeks ago. Though Curtiss and I ran closely together at first, he was running about 10 seconds per mile faster than me and slowly pulled away. At mile six, Brett had found his running legs and regained his position. I didn't have much to respond at that point and was working hard to concentrate on my own race. Miles 7.5 to about the finish were very exposed. The course went around an airport and had no shade for that time; it didn't help that the hottest part of the day was less than an hour away. I was reduced to walking aid stations, then a few times between. Meanwhile, Matt, well over 10 minutes ahead of me at that point, had hopped on a beach cruiser and was encouraging the rest of us. I spotted him with a mile left as he gave me some good news, that fifth place was well behind me. 

Forcing myself to run the entirety of the last mile, a lot harder than it sounds, I crossed the line and made my way straight into a tent with a misting hose attached to the top. 

* * *

I know I still have a lot to learn about racing and pacing for these distances, and with only seven half ironman races under my belt over nearly five years, I shouldn't be so hard on myself. With the season about half way done, I'm feeling really optimistic about our next trip into Canada to tackle the half Ironman in Whistler. Until then, we'll be checking job postings in Bend, and our Chevy Van will be waiting patiently in the gravel driveway with its shiny new water pump.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Fun*

Everything felt fine below my waist. Soaking in the early May sunshine, my legs were ready to lay down the power that had been nurtured over the seven month off season. I had a mere two miles left in the 5k portion of this year's Break-up Triathlon; coming off a best time on the bike leg, I knew I had plenty of gas left to crush the run in record time, at least up to the point where every signal from my brain down was drowned out by the return messages from my abdomen. Side stitches wrecked my body with excruciating and unexpected force. I felt like I had a different cramp for every abdominal muscle. It's not often I run this hard after a thirty minute time trial, once a year, I'd say, and these sensations are rarely if ever felt during training. There were no other competitors nearby to distract me from my effort. Even a mile out from the banner, I was almost so overwhelmed with the searing flames emanating around my stomach that I caught myself nearly walking around the last corner. Once the finish line did come into view, it only reminded me that the pain was just nearly over and did nothing to ease it.

With nearly 60 seconds taken off last year's time, I was by no means upset with how the race turned out, but I was left with the feeling that I had some substantial reserves left in the tank. Indeed, just 10 minutes after the race was over, all but the tiniest fragments of discomfort were gone. As much time as I put into understanding how my body works, I think I've only scratched the surface.

* * *

"Fun" was never quite the word to describe moving. The first time my parents told me we were moving, at least the first time I remember, it was as if gravity had changed. If plants had feelings, I just learned what it felt like to be shoveled up out of the ground where my 10 year old roots had only just gotten used to the southern soil. I'd exchange cities three more times by the time I made it to college. Given my future in the Army, that trend was unlikely to change. Moving every four years or so became a way of life. Verily, over my lifetime, I've moved on average once every year and a half. Each relocation always had an air of transitoriness; it didn't take long for me to understand that. It was as true when I was in fourth grade as it was when I packed up a Uhaul truck and plunged into the Golden Heart of Alaska to marry the girl I knew I'd spend the rest of my happy life with. This time, though...is this what "settling down" means?

Most of our household goods were shipped off about a month ago and are currently waiting on us in an undisclosed warehouse somewhere outside Seattle. Our cozy little house was on the market for less than 48 hours before we accepted an offer. Over the last week, I've slowly been realizing that the roads I'm running, the routes I'm riding, will be the last time I'll probably ever see that space. For me, that's the strangest feeling. While I can honestly say that I don't see much of a future for me in this town, the memories I've made here have been profoundly impactful for me. The lessons I've learned and examples passed down by some of the most genuine people I've ever met will not be lost on me and I'm forever grateful that I was placed here to meet them, embittering winters notwithstanding.

* * *

Kinsey and her parents have been in Anchorage the last few days where she established herself for a third time as Queen of the Gold Nugget Triathlon, leaving me with a furry friend and a few odds and ends to take care of with the house. I've never driven down the Alaska-Canada Highway; I guess the closest thing was the time I journeyed from Missouri to Los Angeles en route to my maiden flight to Anchorage, just me and my trusty road bike, what seems like a decade ago. This time, with the passenger seat properly filled with my best friend and a summer full of warm triathlons ahead, I know there's almost nothing but fun to look forward to. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Fast

The inversion was substantial tonight. Between the airport in the valley and the top of the ridge road, there was almost a 30 degree difference. There might be a chance I could find some relative warmth this evening.

***

Over the last three weeks, I joined my home church in their annual 21 days of prayer and fasting, reminding myself the lesson of the importance of first things. Considering the vast number of calories I go through each day, I opted to try intermittent fasting over full 24 hour or longer fasts. For every day of the week besides Saturdays, I would skip breakfast and not eat until after noon, giving myself a roughly 16 hour window of zero calories. Refined sugar and alcohol were also out, as much as possible. It's extraordinary how many "healthy" items at the store have added sugars that you wouldn't think to check for. Giving up breakfast was challenging most days, emphasizing where I ought to place my dependence. As an additional motivator, I started doing some research on the benefits of going without a meal every once and a while. The lists of positive effects seemed to go on for pages: increased HGH, insulin sensitivity, fat oxidation to name a few.  I decided to see if it would have any effect on my body composition during that time period, so I did a before and after BodPod test just for fun.

***

It was still pretty chilly at the house so I wasted no time. I swapped out the old batteries in my headlamp with a fresh set of AA's. It was five o'clock and the last remnants of sunlight would be completely gone in less than half an hour. Taking the shortest path to the nearest hill, I started climbing up Chena Ridge Road. My body had been feeling exceptionally vital lately, no thanks to environmental conditions, and with the nearly three pounds of fat I had lost over the last month, running up this hill was a tad easier than it had been the last time. For just a few moments, I enjoyed running directly on the surface of the road. Every neighborhood road in the city was covered exclusively in hard packed snow. Runnable? Yes. Preferable? Not exactly. It became quickly apparent that the main road, with its strips of uncovered asphalt and huge piles of spoil on either side, making the roadway more narrow, was far from ideal. I had to turn my face as passing vehicles were so close, they would kick up gravel, threatening my eyes. Neighborhood roads it is. 

After just 200 feet of elevation gain, I was starting to shed layers. Like turning the dial on a thermostat, the rise and fall of the roads made substantial differences in the amount of effort I had to put into staying warm. 

Darkness fell across the valley. Running along a high road, I looked out over the city and could make out everything with ease; the flashing airport lights, the university satellite arrays, the steam clouds hovering over a dozen different industrial buildings. Next to the sliver of the new moon, Venus was burning bright, offering more light than the sun now. The distant planet may as well be Earth.

About half way through tonight's session, turning back toward the direction of my house, whips of foggy breath reflected my headlamp illumination back into my eyes. I couldn't make out much of the detail in the road and was simply trusting it was uniform enough to confidently take the next step. My lips were cracked and peeling, hour old balm lending no help now. Crimson teardrops stained the white streets behind me. I'd always had issues with nosebleeds and the deep winter air only exacerbated things. I was on the low road now, temperatures closer to zero. The blood froze to my face and temporarily stopped the flow. Surging up the last rise, I increased my heart rate just as much to stay warm as stick to the workout. The last stride of my run brought me through my home's threshold, the balmy room temperature of 61 degrees bringing me back to life. 

***

I started my weekend with fresh, blended coffee, coconut oil, dark chocolate and raw egg yolks. The fast was over but I'm only getting started with this year's journey. I know my Creator has a plan in store and I've been fortunate enough to receive a small glimpse into what's ahead. Near the end of my 21 days, USMES made the announcement that I'd have the privilege of joining the ranks of a few hand-selected athletes on the US Military Endurance Sports elite team. The announcement threw some much needed coal on the fire that's brought me through this endless winter so far. Training  camp in Tucson can't come soon enough, but today has its own worries; back to the Grind. 

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Layered

My kicks were finding little purchase in the new snow strewn across the University's ski trails. The website said they had been groomed early in the day but with this rate of snow fall, there was bound to be a good layer of powder that skiers would have to glide over. For those of the alpine persuasion, these conditions would have been a welcome start to their seasons, but for the rest of us, it made for slow goings. Still, I was at least able to ski. So far this season, the clouds have been reluctant to grant the Valley with an abundance of snow fall. Last year, I was skiing in a single layer by the end of September. This time round, the indifferent skies rolled in freezing air much more readily than flying snow.

For better or worse, my first Fairbanks winter was far more mild than most. Several publications espoused stories on and on about how things were different last year, a decade ago, when they were children, how they had to walk to school in negative 40 nearly every day in the winter. Perhaps there was some elaboration but the weather data did not lie. The temperatures barely scratched the surface of -30 last year. This year, Winter had other plans.

This Friday, I was able to get away form work early in my pursuit to hit the Lighted Loops now that they were finally covered in a decent layer of white. At 3:45 in the afternoon, I looked out my Jeep window to catch one last glimpse of the sun. Staring into the beautiful, pale orange globe was no more taxing to the eyes than gazing directly into a streetlight thinly veiled by the evening's glitter snow. By the time I clipped in to my Fischer skate skis, the only light to be found was artificial. After a few stumbles, I found my ski legs and proceeded to refresh neural pathways that had lain dormant for some nine months. I was not moving quickly. I had to stop several times to readjust gear, catch my breath, or focus my head lamp.

The diminishing sunlight always caught me by surprise. It's the fourth time I've been introduced to the arctic winter and you'd think I'd be used to it by now. While we all adapt to the temperature, indeed, it doesn't take a genius to add an extra layer, the deep dark is a different beast. The brain is not fully prepared for it. Vitamin D supplements, wool base layers, $500 dollar boots lined with state-of-the-art aerogel insulation will no doubt prove strong defenders against the conditions, but no light bulb, aurora, or full moon will ever replace a reasonable amount of natural, unabated sun gently encouraging the skin.

I coasted off the Potato Field and slid onto Smith Lake. It was approaching five in the afternoon yet I had the frozen flatland to myself. I paused at the far side and relocated my fleece buff from my neck to the top of my head, sweeping off the frost created by my wet breath.The world was still and silent as the flecks of snow dust gently collected on my ski tips. My heart rate settled out and I continued my fun across the iced lake.

The inside of my house grows more familiar. When the forecast calls for consistent temperatures well below -10 degrees, I already know I won't have another chance to visit the local trails for a while. Everyone has a cutoff temperature. Whether that's based on the quality of one's equipment or their personal mettle, I shouldn't know, but I do know what mine is. During those cold snaps, if you consider a fortnight a "snap," we learn to be creative with our endurance training. Our floor fan finds lots of use while we stream video after video of workout routines or online training games. Staring into the screens where fitness instructors guide us through a series of challenging exercises, I find myself actively opening my eyes wider in an attempt to fill my head with light and trick myself into thinking it's a normal day outside anywhere else in the lower 48. It's a fun distraction but there comes a point where the mind thirsts for real adventure that can only be satisfied on the open road, the hard packed ridge trail, the birch covered mountain side.

I didn't make it far before I knew I had to pack it up for the day. After just a few times up the hill leading back to my starting point I was finished. The effort was difficult and if I had been a more adept skier, I may well have continued on much longer, but for my first ski of the season, I'd take it. Plus, I had plans for the night. An hour later, I yanked the extension cord out of my car's plug-in and fired up the engine allowing it to warm up for a few minutes before starting my trip to the yurt. My friends were baking homemade pizza and some others were bringing full growlers of tasty amber ale. We drained our pint glasses through blithe banter of frosty Alaskan adventures as our backsides were pleasantly warmed by the fire stove centerpiece.