Sunday, February 26, 2012

the big year

Awhile back, to counteract the horror of growing old, I decided that each big year--those ending in zero or five--would be marked by a Big Event. For my last zero, I ran my first marathon. For the five, I backpacked the Overland Track in Tasmania.

I could wait five years back then because my life was a daily adventure. On any given day I was kayaking along the Alaskan coast, flying in a floatplane over untracked mountains, or fighting fires in some remote mountain range. Each day was an intoxicating dose of adrenaline and beauty, organized terror and breathlessness.

A day on the job as a kayak ranger

The helibase at Yellowstone

Look, there's my ride!
The hardest thing I have had to accept with my new life is that I need to find adventure on a micro-scale. It's there, it's just not as in-your-face. A ski along the old canal has its own small adventure, a run across the moraine its own beauty. Still, sometimes I miss the old days. For many reasons, I can't ever return, and most days I am okay with that. But not quite, so I have changed the rules. Instead of every five years for a Big Event, from now on it will be every year.

Now those people reading this who are lucky enough to hold down an adventurous job or who somehow don't need to work won't get this. But my fellow computer punchers will. Most of us are not the faceless softies you may envision. We labor on because our eyes are on the prize. In my case, my plan is to retire outrageously early. So I work on, and think up Big Years.

This Big Year is hiking 230 miles plus change on the spine of the Sierras. Yes, we got our JMT permit, through a semi-back door route that adds on a few miles, but who is counting? Yes, the trail is well-trodden, definitely not a slog through the jungles of New Guinea. But who cares? It's my Big Year. And next year? There are some ideas in the hopper. That is the beauty of a Big Year. It doesn't have to conform to any rules. It doesn't even have to be a trip. It could be finishing a novel. It could be getting married. (Wait. I've done both of those.) It just has to be something spectacular in your own mind, something that gets you through the rest of the year.

In the meantime I will work on finding the adventure in little things.

Anyone else have Big Years? What are they?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The hotel gym. Yeah.

A big part of my new job is traveling, which sounds cooler than it is, because generally this is what I see: Airport. Hotel. Windowless conference room. Darkness. Hotel. Airport.

I am currently in Denver, but all I see is a big road with traffic. I am definitely not in Podunk anymore. My (very good) tomato caprese salad cost $9! There was a guy outside rummaging through dumpsters. Yes, the glamorous side of travel.

Because I'm obsessed, I always try to find a hotel with a gym. (When I asked if there were nearby trails, the response was, "Um. No, not really.") The problem is, you never know what kind of gym you're going to get. They run the gamut from one rickety "exercise bike" that threatens to fall over to ones with an actual Olympic sized pool, free workout clothes and towels (Love you, Captain Cook hotel in Anchorage). One I use often in a hotel I won't name but which starts with Holiday, has the gym located, with windowed walls, right next to a pool and hot tub, which means that the people smarter more into relaxation than me get to stare in at my weightlifting technique.

But usually they are like this one, with a couple of treadmills, a bike and an elliptical, a weight machine and a couple of kettleballs. Not great but enough to do the job. Because I'm obsessed, I set the alarm early and creep in before the posted hours to get a workout in before sitting all day in a windowless conference room. This one even has a TV, and since I banned all television from my premises after the AnyKindOfSportsObsessed ex left the said premises, I get to reacquaint myself with Say Yes to the Dress Important Educational Programming. This breaks up the boredom of riding or running to nowhere. Usually nobody else comes in which means I can waft from machine to machine with no waiting.

When I stayed in DC for a whole month, the hotel had no gym. I was forced to get a membership at a chain gym, which was overwhelming with three floors of stuff. My gym at home would fit into one corner. It was great except that other people liked it too. Beady-eyed staff members prowled the aisles, timing everyone and making them get off the machines after thirty minutes. Worse yet, people stood by the machines waiting for you to get off them, so you couldn't even fudge it. I retreated to the National Mall and ran laps with all the other people who didn't like gyms and went there at eight in the evening instead.

The problem with paying for memberships at gyms, though, like the one I went to in Juneau, where my hotel didn't have a gym either, is that after you fork over the $15 per day you feel like you have to spend a lot of time there to "make it worth it." This can take an immense effort of will when all you want to do is go back to the hotel and eat the free cookies.

So it's better to have a hotel with a gym. As much as I don't like gyms, if I don't get some exercise on these trips I won't be a pleasant person. In many locations, just heading out the door for a run isn't an option. (See "busy road" and "guy in dumpster" above.) When it is an option, I ditch the gym and go explore the town. I've found beautiful trails and cute little houses that way. Unfortunately, this is pretty rare, so the gym it is.

Well, got to go. There's a cookie  elliptical with my name on it.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Skiing. The new running?

We finally have winter. Sort of. You wouldn't know it in town, but venture up a couple of thousand feet and there it is, a fluffy, deep powder with a spangled surface. I've forsaken running in favor of skinny skis, flying effortlessly over snow so white it looks blue.

Sort of effortlessly anyway.This is not a groomed, tracked kind of skiing. No warming huts, no concession stands, no services. Here you get dropped off with a wave and "see you at Fergi!" Once my ride leaves, there is no bail-out for several hours, until I drop down a precipitous slope to the all-volunteer ski area. The snow could be great or it could be awful, but there is no cell service, so slog on I do, pushing powder in front of me, breaking trail.

There's something so simple about skiing, just the plant of poles and the push of boards. I move through a hushed world: no cars, no people, only the sound of skis on snow. I feel like I am a thousand miles from anywhere. It is easy to get into a rhythm I remember from my long marathon training runs; that trance that comes sometime awhile in, when you barely remember individual miles. It's hard for me to reach that when I run now since my body won't let me go that far. I remember our small training group moaning as we ran the first four or five miles, talking about how hard it was just to get past that first bit before the good part, when everything smoothed out.

I can get there when I ski, and that's why I abandon running when the good snow is here. I love that time when nothing hurts and the brain wanders free, spooling out over the miles. There's no conscious thought, just motion. Rabbit tracks meander over the snow. There is nothing here but white and silence.

All too soon I reach the turn-off to Fergi, forgetting as usual the steep and scary tree-choked ravine which is way beyond my ability. Unclipping, I take the Walk of Shame down, but thankfully nobody is there to spot me and I am able to ski triumphantly to the parking lot. Here there are masses of people. Kids grab for the T bar and miss, being dragged for a few yards before they give up and come back to try again. The rope tow breaks and Scott drives up in the Rhino. Jerry jumps in and it is like Baywatch, hill managers to the rescue, minus the swimsuits. I sit on the ski patrol porch in the sun, a whirlwind of activity swirling around me. Only I know the quiet world that is just above all this.

Soon the skiing will turn sour, and it will be back to running again. I look forward to the trails, but it isn't quite the same as gliding over new snow, that feeling that I could just keep going forever. No cut-off times, no medals, no glory, just me and skis, covering ground.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

How badly do you want it?

There comes a time in almost every endeavor, athletic or otherwise, where you must ask this question. The answer you give reveals much about your hidden soul. I, for example, would never give up fingers or toes to stand on an 8,000 meter peak.  I wouldn't run 20 miles on a treadmill (even if I ever wanted to do this, the gym would kick me off). On the other hand, I have shuffled past the point of recognition to finish a marathon. I've busted butt to keep up with other firefighters as we clawed our way up a burning mountain. I stayed in some relationships past their expiration date, praying for a miracle.

The reward versus effort is a tricky one. Sometimes I have floundered and slipped and slid my way to what I believe will be a great view and it isn't. I've sprinted along a race course only to discover my time is way slower than I thought. I've struggled to meet expectations and found that, like mountains, there are more and more on the horizon. There have been other times when it was totally worth it, the payoff much greater than I expected.

I am in day three of rejection. JMT rejection! Every evening one of us hovers over the fax machine, praying our application will be one of the lucky ones. And then I think, what? I'm applying to go on a hike? The craziness of this does not go unnoticed. I know I'm in a trap, the hype of something so valued and desired that people spend hours agonizing online about how to get permits. But (stamping foot) I really want to hike this trail!  A lot! Darn it!

I guess I should be glad that people are lining up to backpack 211 miles. That's awesome! I'm all for it. It would be a better world if more people put down the Cheetos and backpacked 211 miles. Just not on August 3. From Happy Isles-Merced/Sunrise pass through. Okay?

I don't want to climb Half Dome THIS badly. Ugh!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

This post isn't about me

This post isn't about how the fog hung around the shoulders of the moraine, enclosing me in a grey curtain. It isn't about how a cautious rain lightly kissed the ice-skimmed surface of the glacial lake far below. It isn't even about running on what always feels like the top of the world, alone.

Instead it's about Sherry, who went out for a run on January 7th and never came home. It's about all the other women like her, most whom you have never heard of. It's about wanting to take back the trails for all of our daughters, cousins, friends, so that what happened to Sherry never happens again.

So this post isn't about how far I ran today, or my pace, or how the ice and rocks made the trail treacherous. It isn't about my shoes, soaked through, or the deer half-glimpsed behind the ridge, watching me.

No. It's about people all over the world doing a virtual run in Sherry's memory, a powerful tide of belief and sorrow and rage, proof that united, we can do anything. People are running on treadmills, on pavement, on dirt and snow and ice, none of us running alone for one brief moment in time.

This post isn't about me. It isn't even about how, inexplicably, I started to cry as I headed back down the trail and home, years of looking over my shoulder, the split-second measuring up of a sketchy van on a remote highway, the clutching of pepperspray, the statements about how women should never run alone, as if we bring it on ourselves--all of this adding up to the balance between how running makes me feel and the fear. A fear we should't have to face every time we lace up our shoes.

But I am wrong here. Because this post is about me. Don't ask me to explain, but as I reached the more sane part of the trail, the part where I can actually run, for just a moment I saw in my mind the face of a woman I will now never get to know. It was Sherry, smiling. Saying: Thanks for the run. I've only had this happen once before, years ago, someone else who passed on too soon.  I believed then. I do now too.

I get to go home today. It's easy to take that for granted, but I don't, not today.

Run on, Sherry.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Part of the Problem


It seems really strange to be planning something that is six months out, but we are deep in it, combing over maps, discussing bear canisters, and fretting over logistics. I usually like to fly-by-night it, only deciding what I want to do the day before. Not this time.

Here, we have dates and alternate dates, trailheads and alternate ones, lotteries and faxing permit requests 24 weeks in advance, only between certain hours. Ugh! Of course, there are reasons for this, and we are the reason. Too. Many. People. I am officially Part of the Problem.

I have to laugh thinking of how jealously we guarded our wilderness solitude in Alaska. If another boat steamed into the bay we were in, we fumed and griped. Seeing someone else on the beautiful and mysterious Red Bluffs, we jumped a foot in amazement and declared the place overrun. Even here, except in the height of summer on the most popular trails, I can be completely alone. I did a 40 mile backpack trip this fall and in all that time only saw one person. Not going to happen on the JMT!

I don't care though. Ever since I set up my Tadpole tent (which I still need a front pole for--anyone got one out there?) at Rae Lakes and saw the thru-hikers pass by, I wanted to hike the whole thing. Anchored down by my summer seasonal job of collecting native plant seeds and willing them to grow in arid campgrounds, I could only manage three days out on the trails that ran along the Sierra's spine. I always had to turn back, wondering what I was missing. If seeing people and camping near them is the price I have to pay, I will do it. I know where to go to get solitude when I get back.

So it begins. The delicious purchasing of gear, the planning of meals, the poring over maps. Really, is there anything better than planning a trip, especially one you have dreamed of for twenty years? Bucket list, people.

So we wait until 5 pm on February 14th when other desperate souls will be lunging for the fax machine. Wish me luck!
Riddle me this, Batman...What is your dream trip? What holds you back? Or have you already done it? Was it as good as you imagined?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

moon, stars, snow

Let's start with this: the moon hung suspended over the ridge that runs between the two canyons, illuminating the night. Stars glittered in the extreme cold. Trees popped as their bark expanded, sounding like distant explosions in the forest. The meadow was alive with snow shining like diamonds.

my camera wasn't working that well, a casualty of the cold weather, but you get the idea.

This was why I wanted to come here in winter, to feel the difference between the meadow I know in summer and this one, where once the sun dipped behind the Hurwal divide, the chill set in, a cold so strong that it felt like a presence. When I stomped out a campsite with my snowshoes, it was just above freezing, warm enough to slog a little further up the trail. But summer trails vanish in winter and soon I was floundering in deep snow, far off the path, but not so far that I couldn't see Polaris Pass and the valley opening up towards Frazier Lake. Too far to hike today, with untracked snow. It took me three and a half hours to make it to the meadow, a hike I can do in two hours in summer. My snowshoes sunk deep in the baseless snow, making each step like this: step. sink. breathe.

I was alone in the meadow, the way I had planned it. I knew that if I brought someone along, the temptation would be there to rely on someone else to do the hard things. There's a time to be a wilderness princess and there's a time to rely on yourself to survive.

And that's what it felt like, survival. My feet would not warm up, despite my -20 bag. Everything froze: saline solution, boots, snowshoe bindings, even the tent poles. On the way out I had to fasten them to my pack like an oversized antenna, since they refused to bend apart. High above my head, the poles caught on every overhanging branch.

Waiting for the sun would have been the ideal solution, but after being trapped in the tent for hours I was eager to move. I jumped up and down in an unattractive dance, my feet in agony. The chemical packs I had brought along were lukewarm, a casualty of age perhaps. There was the wrestle with the frosty tent, the prying out of stakes frozen in the snow, the forcing of boots into snowshoes in a temperature perhaps at zero, perhaps lower.

So why do this? The only answer I have is this: moon and stars, reflected in snow. Does there have to be another reason?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

running through sprinklers

I started running at fourteen. Decades ago now.Three of us jogged around the neighborhood on balmy summer nights, ducking through sprinklers and talking about boys we liked, but who never liked us back. We walked when we felt like it. We didn't wear watches or Garmins or heart rate monitors. We didn't know how far we went or how fast. It didn't really matter. When did that change?

Other people ran, but not that many. One of our classmates slowly plodded down our street in full makeup, inexplicably clad in nylons under her shorts. Our dads ran, more competitive than us, their forties chasing them. They were faster than we were, but we didn't care. If people passed us, we didn't mind. When did that change?

For these runs, we wore whatever sneakers we had and regular old shorts and T-shirts. The only "jogging bras" were the same ones we had, until a company came out with a white monstrosity that you had to struggle into. We didn't have compression tights, we had baggy sweatpants. But we didn't care. When did that change?

When I got home from running, I didn't think about the calories in whatever I ate. I didn't categorize myself as "bad" or "good" depending on my food choices. The scale didn't have the power to ruin the day.  I didn't think fatfatfat, although honestly I could never have been called fat in my life, even though I often feel that way. When did that change?

I'm not saying I want to go back to fourteen, with its associated crazy. I like some high tech gear which makes it possible for a more enjoyable and safer experience. I like adding up miles in my head sometimes and meeting goals. But sometimes I miss the simpleness of doing what I felt like for as long as I felt like it. No drumbeat in my head saying exercisecaloriesstrengthtrainstretchYOGAwas this enoughexercisepushupsWHENDIDYOULASTRIDEYOURBIKEranoncethisweekTENMINUTEMILES
AREYOUKIDDINGME?isthatallyou'vegot?  I miss meeting at the bottom of "Barry's Hill" on those simple summer nights, the sound of sprinklers a gentle metronome.