Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Last Wave

We roared across the land like a spandex-clad apocalypse, the leaves whirling into the air in our wake, for we’d sucked the air out of the forest and into our own little vortex, into our lungs to fuel our legs to push harder, and harder still, chests heaving like bellows, and we weren’t so much on wheels as we were just flying, gravity an afterthought, and still we pushed for more, like we wanted to burn our tires clean off our bikes, which shuddered and hissed and left arched slashes through the sandy soil.  Behind us the leaves settled back down onto the dirt path and the orange and red Michigan forest was still, finally.  We were the last wave of the day.  

The square red signs with white numbers counted down to what couldn’t come quickly enough, or was about to arrive too soon, the finish of this race, the 27th Iceman Cometh Challenge.  We started as a group of 92, local heroes and characters, Olympians and World Tour demigods, keeners all of us.  And now, a short 80 minutes in, just 5km to go, 38km behind us, and there were 10 of us, following the same track that 5,000 other racers had done earlier. 

One rider was off the front and out of sight, the rest of us chasing and racing for second. One of us would be the first to launch a final attack and it would be too soon, too soon before the line where it counted to cross first, and the rest would scurry around the miscalculation and, like pinballs astray, we would zigzag up the final steep hill, squinting out of pain and the afternoon sun glinting through the trees, the scent and sensation of beer particles spraying out of the mouths of the screaming crowd.  Across the line, we’ve finished in some order or other, screeching to a smoldering halt. Any longer and we would have been spewing blood out our eyes.

Released from our manic state, we’re suddenly all smiles and high fives, catching our breath, talking about this race, unique and bigger than any other mountain bike race in the country, all the way up here in northern Michigan in November.  I was the one in the lead group who had gone too soon, and the cold beer was dulling the sting of my misjudgment and missing out on a larger portion of the $32,000 up for grabs amongst the top-10. In just under 85 minutes of racing, the winner had just made around $70 per minute, me around $4.16.  But money mattered less with each recounting of the day, and this weekend spent with new friends from Traverse City and the crew at Einstein Cycles.  Over more beer and pizza and day-old scones back at the shop, we joked and talked bikes. The day was already good history, a notch in each person’s own folklore. It felt good to be a part of the day and this buoyant sector of the cycling community.  From the first wave to the last, it’s what it’s all about.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Between the Dots

Pre-Ride Thought Experiment #81: Once upon a time there was a German philosopher named Georg W.F. Hegel who promoted the notion that the only true picture of life comes from the outside looking in. Amongst the pretentious crowd it may be referred to as Hegelian Absolutism.  According to this view, life unfolds from one age to the next, where one trend inspires the next (anti)trend, which begets the next as a mix of that before it, and so-on.  It's a constant process of problem>reaction>solution, but that catch is that it that there's nothing you or I can do about it.  It will simply unfold, and all we may do to process it, according to this view, is to look down (or in) from afar and enjoy the ride, calmly interpreting and accepting our role in it.  To me it sounds like a fairly passive view on life, just connecting the dots from the scatter, with not much navigating in between.  

Before going further, I should establish a context, which involves a process of imagination: reading a map (preferably a paper one), charting a route, and then executing that route.  This is without fail one of my favorite things to do, whether it is planning a wild ride across the land, charting out a race season, or, more figuratively, navigating the scatter of life and the "career path."  

Sure, since Hegel’s ideas, several heavy thinkers came up with this thing called existentialism to address this issue. But in my experience, the outside-looking-in versus being-in is still a puzzle that ought to be recognized.  It crops up in so many moments of modern life, like blankly guzzling through social media feed to find your place amongst the day's trend, which most of the time is like opening the fridge to look at the snacks when you aren’t actually hungry.  It’s like taking a pause from going dot-to-dot along the status quo, maybe thinking about going in between on a more customized path, but never actually going...which akin to looking at that map of back roads and trails, contemplating the whole presentation of paths and topo lines, place names, borders and histories, then rolling it up and setting it back on the shelf from the comfy perch on the proverbial armchair (says the Armchair Philosopher!). This is certainly a valid way to contemplate the world, but I'm not sure how I feel about it leaving room for charting adventures using said map, for example.  Shouldn’t we who are able do more traveling between the dots from time to time, and be so daft as to think we can determine our own destinies!?

Inside looking way out! The end (almost) of a 24-mile through-run of the Enchantments in the North Cascades, circa late-July.  An aggressive shake-off of the race season, to say the least.  I could barely walk for three days afterwards. (Photo by: Sarah Paxson)
Anyway, back to Herr. Hegel; I appreciate his idea not because I agree with it (or fully understand it), but because it got me thinking about how I manage my own outside-looking-in versus being in. After all, what does the former say for really experiencing the things that make our own worlds go round?  To hell with being steamrolled by the unfolding of time. How about going between the dots and carving out a bit more of our own time?  Outside-looking-in seems like a good reciprocal to keep in mind so that you are spurred to keep doing things while still reflecting on where you've come from.

In any case, I digress.  This is just a drawn out preamble to sharing a few superficial examples of my adventures between the dots over the last season.  These are the types of things that reassure me when I face the angst about navigating the scatter.  

Step-by-step goes the bear (Photo: Spencer Paxson)

Charting a 40-mile trek through the Chugach Mountains in Alaska (Photo by: Sarah Paxson)
Connecting the dots on some fun statistics: 

Since January I have spent about 7% of my time training on bicycle, excluding commutes and other non-training rides. That's about 34,500 minutes, or 625 hours. 

At an average power output of 200 watts, that equates to approximately 128 kilowatt hours, or enough to charge my iPhone, Macbook, and Garmin every day for an entire year, plus some extra to run the cable modem for the internet.  That is also enough energy to have kept my house running for about half a month.

Based on an average cadence of 83 revolutions per minute, my legs have done 3.1 million circles.

My heart rate during bike training has averaged 133 beats per minute.  That's nearly 5 million heartbeats.

My biggest day on the bike was 102 miles, 14.5 hours, and 29,064 feet of climbing. 

Stats from a big vision-quest - a capstone effort to honor the effort of an Olympic campaign. (Graphic by: Spencer Paxson)

The outcome of a recent map-charting - 280 miles with dear friends, riding through some amazing parts of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest around Randle, Trout Lake, Mt. Adams, Underwood, and Indian Heaven. (Graphic by: Spencer Paxson, Google Earth Pro)

Why let the washed out roads stop you from getting home over the old mountain pass and spending a weekend with friends and family?  Ride the bike! Encountering a break in the road on a 3-day backcountry tour through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, about 12-miles outside of Randle, WA. (Photo by: Spencer Paxson)

Why waste time driving around the lake to the trailhead when you can paddle?  A great late-summer evening out across Lake Whatcom to Stewart Mountain. (Graphic by: Spencer Paxson)
An aggressive day - testing ground for the Kona Private Jake gravel grinding capabilities, followed by testing the mental fortitude on the Class 4 scramble to the top of Twin Sister...then riding back for beers and burgers to calm the nerves, of course! (Graphic by: Spencer Paxson)

Rewind to the season...
Rewind the the beginning of the season: Careening through the tussocks on the foothills of the New Zealand Southern Alps - an amazing start to the season at the first inaugural Pioneer Stage Race in late January: 530km and 7 days from Christchurch to Queenstown. (Photo by: Duncan Philpott)

Following the dots through more Southern Alps (Photo by: Duncan Philpott)

A new training partner and friend extraordinaire - Convinced Stephen Ettinger to move in with Sarah and me for the season - we'd spend the rest of the year putting forth our best efforts on the international race circuit, training at home and traveling the globe on a memorable Olympic crusade. (Photo by: Joe Lawwill)

Testing-testing-testing the newly redesigned Hei Hei platform - it proved to be the worthiest of steeds for hundreds of hours and thousands of miles across three continents and over seven countries.
A thing of beauty (Photo by: Patrick Means)

Test pass (Photo by: Caleb Smith)
Chucking it for all I was worth at the 2016 World Cup season opener in Cairns, Australia, the first big stop on my globetrotting campaign for Rio, which spanned three continents and seven countires from March to June. (Photo by: Jason Stevens) 

Some podium finishes along the way - on home soil, that is - here in the top-5 at one of the US Cup Series events in Bonelli, CA (Photo by: Erin Huck)
Bringing the thunder to Europe - here a steep, muddy chute at the La Bresse World Cup on Julien Absalon's home court.  (Photo by: Rob Jones/Canadian Cyclist)

Feeling the thunder of the German crowd while going cross-eyed up the steep climbs at the Albstadt World Cup. (Photo by: Rob Jones/Canadian Cyclist)
A reunion of Kona dirtbags back home - bringing back the Mt. Hood SkiBowl action, which is where it all started it all for me. (Graphic by: Kona Bicycles)

Some more Wild-West respite at the 2016 Blitz-to-Barrel, Bend, OR (Photo by: Tina Brubeck)

Tuning back up on home soil before the last trip overseas - pinning it at the Carson City Off Road, the final of the 2016 Epic Rides Trilogy (Photo by: Joe Lawwill)
Putting a cap on my 6-year World Cup crusade with Team USA at the 2016 XC World Championships in Nove Mesto na Morave, Czech Republic, battling to a lead-lap finish in front of some 50,000 frothing fans. (Photo by: Rob Jones/Canadian Cyclist)

Less than 48 hours after finishing World Champs in central Europe, found myself deep in the misty woods of the British Columbia Coast, battling friend and foe at the 10th Annual BC Bike Race, a 7-day stage race.  For the sake of consistency, I finished Bridesmaid (2nd) for the 4th consecutive year. (Photo by: Dave Silver)

...and two days after finishing BC Bike Race, we blasted off the line at US National Championships in Mammoth, CA.  Given preceding two weeks, from World Champs in Europe, to 7 days at BC Bike Race, I surprised myself with a 7th place finish. (Photo by: Diane Paxson)

Navigating the scattered bergs on Nizina Lake, on the honeymoon trip to Wrangell Mountains, AK in late August. (Photo by: Spencer Paxson)

Navigating the ice on the Tana Lobe, Chugach Mtns., AK (Photo by: Sarah Paxson
Approaching an ancient icefield, like a marooned space ship on another planet. Chugach Range, AK (Photo by: Sarah Paxson)
Back to the back roads back home, somewhere Gobbler's Knob in Skamania County...(Photo by: Spencer Paxson)
Home. Mt. Adams, Trout Lake, WA (Photo by: Elliott Sherburne)
Taking it all in. Being there to be there. Chugach, AK. (Photo by: Spencer Paxson)

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Summus Summonere, Everesting, a Meditation

On a fine morning in late July, I set out on a mountain bike ride to Chuckanut Mountain, pedaling up its western flank along Fragrance Lake Road, then down the Double Black Diamond trail to the bottom, doing so again and again until I had covered over 100 miles and climbed and descened the equivalent of Mt. Everest.  Up to that point, it was without question the most colossal ride I had ever done.

This was not so much a ride as it was a spiritual experiment. Despite my sharing the experience here, it was a singularly personal endeavor. It was neither for training, nor exhibition. I needed to do it for reasons of which I was certain, yet had hardly begun to untangle. The concept of climbing 29,029 feet in a single ride was certainly absurd, and only slightly premeditated. It struck me just a week before while I was in Mammoth, California preparing for my last major race of the season. 

In the six months prior to Mammoth, I had been deep into another quest, traveling around the world, competing in high-level mountain bike competitions with the ultimate goal of qualifying for a spot at the summer Olympics. It had been a phenomenal adventure, but the bid itself was unsuccessful. The United States only qualified one starting spot for the Games, and despite my efforts, I was perhaps third in line at best. Though a bigger part of me knew that the journey itself was the true prize I had sought, there was yet a small, tenacious part of me struggling with a sense of failure. And perhaps it wasn’t a sense of failure so much as a sense that something was missing, like the right chord to end a song. I had accepted that this specific Olympic and World Cup quest was over, but now I felt like it was stuck on a flat refrain, unworthy of the grand symphony that preceded it. It deserved a strong resolve, one that would honor the ambition and intention that started it in the first place. A transition to carry all of the positive vibrations into the next movement. This feeling, whatever it was exactly, needed liberation, the sort of liberation that can be so deeply realized through an escapade in the outdoors.

In the four days that this existential, if not hubristic, notion unfolded in my head, I stayed quiet about it. To be clear, my first harebrained intention was to climb 20,000 feet in a day.  The most climbing I had ever done in a single day was just over 11,000 feet.  Nearly doubling that seemed daunting enough. That is until I suddenly recalled a friend some time ago mentioning the concept of “Everesting”: repeating a climb until achieving total elevation gain of 29,029 feet. That was just unsettling. And even more unsettling to discover that “Everesting” was indeed a thing!  There is a semi-formal organization based in Australia, calling themselves the Hells 500, that stewards the concept and attainment of “Everestings” from around the world. There are rules, and there is even an “Everesting” Hall of Fame.  I looked into it on the Hells 500 website for further inspiration. At the time of my inquiry, just under 2,000 people in the world had completed an “Everesting”, and only three in the state of Washington. If I pulled this off, I wouldn’t be setting any records, but I would be the first in the state to do this on a mountain bike. Well, there you had it. That was all the extra encouragement I needed. I shared my plans with my wife, and with my two closest friends the night before over a few beers.   

The climb up Fragrance Lake Road to the Cyrus Gates overlook at the top of Cleator Road gains just around 1,600 feet, plus another dozen-or-so on the way back down the trail.  Each complete lap is just over 5.5 miles. The average gradient is a manageable 8.5% comprised of mostly gravel and dirt road with a few sections of narrow trail.  This spot came to mind because of its scenic and quiet climb route, and the excellent trail option for the way down.  The Double Black Diamond-Double Down trail is a singletrack gem, and was completed just a year prior through a collaboration between the Whatcom Mountain Bike Coalition and Washington State Parks.  

To complete an “Everest”, I would need to do 18 full laps. Having done numerous (and much shorter!) workouts on this climb, I estimated that it would take me around 16 hours to complete the mission. That would fit nicely with the July daylight hours here at 48.6 degrees north. Amidst my back-of-the-napkin reckoning with this challenge, I honestly gave no thought to the distance I would cover. It would just unfold one climb and one descent at a time. I knew it was completely beyond the realm of my normal training.  I specialize in fast-paced races that last for 90 minutes and cover 20 miles or less. My typical training rides average around three hours, burning anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 Calories (measured as kilojoules on the bike). A “solid” day is around 5,000 feet of climbing and descending. This ride would be six times the vert, five times the duration and over three times the calories. For reference, those regular 5-Big Mac rides were about to be eclipsed by a 17-Big Macs blowout!  The closest thing I do to “ultra endurance” are the multi-day stage races I do once or twice per year.  For example, the 2016 BC Bike Race, in which I placed second overall, took me 15 hours and 49 minutes to complete in seven days, with just over 25,000 feet of climbing.  This ride would be like doing all of that, and more, in a day.  And it wasn't just the climbing that was intimidating.  Descending the height of Mt. Everest mostly on rough, dusty trail was going to be a separate challenge altogether. In short, this single ride would equal nearly a week’s worth of good, hard mountain biking.  I really had not idea what to expect by the end.           

I woke up at 4:00AM and enjoyed a breakfast of steel-cut oats with berries, honey and a couple of fried eggs mixed in.  Juggling my coffee, along with a few musette bags full of hydration and calories, I loaded the bike onto my truck and took off for the trailhead. My basecamp was next to a log on the side of Fragrance Lake Road.  Predicting that this unusual stash of Clif Bar product, boiled potatoes, sardines, peanut butter cups, rice pudding, hemp seeds, chocolate milk and coconut water would either intrigue or irritate others enjoying the trails, I simply left a note that read “Pls do not remove :)”. And with that, the ride began unceremoniously with the bleep of my Garmin device, that miniature monolith of modern cycling culture affixed to my handlebar.  For motivation, I had set the home screen to Total Ascent, Elapsed Time, Time of Day, and Distance.  

It was 5:50AM and I had 18 laps to go.  I decided I would break it into thirds, six laps for each batch, three batches to the end, only three laps to get half-way through each batch, and three at a time didn’t seem like so many. On this first lap it dawned on me that my 16-hour completion target might exceed the battery life of my recording device! If it didn’t record, did it happen?  My backup solution was to take a picture of my computer at the top of each climb.  Hopefully my phone would last that long, too.  In any case, it was extra incentive to keep the pace up and the breaks short.     

By 10:00 AM I had completed the first batch and nearly 10,000 feet.  That is a big day by anyone’s standards, and I was surprised by how fresh I felt, as if it had so far been a warm-up. It’s amazing how the subconscious mind can partition a massive effort into manageable sensations.  That is, as long as you do you your part to manage the conscious mind and take the process one piece at a time.      
The reflections and the climbing continued.  Coincidentally, I also realized on the first lap that 18 repetitions was the same number of years that I had been racing bicycles.  So on each climb I would take a moment to recall the corresponding year, starting with the Gorge Games in Hood River, Oregon in 1998 - saving up money for my first mountain bike, my parents taking entire weekends to drive me around the state for more races.  By the time I surpassed my record for total ascent, I was on lap seven, approaching 12,000 feet and thinking about 2004.  That was the year I started college and upgraded from “semi-pro” to “elite” in the NORBA National Series.  I recalled something about a very steep climb at my first elite race in Durango, Colorado.  At least this climb today didn’t seem that hard. Not yet, anyway.  

Around 4:00PM, in just under 10 hours of riding, I surpassed the 20,000 foot mark.  For a brief moment up the climb on that 13th lap, two of three batches complete, it was 2010, the year I met the woman who would eventually become my wife.  We lived in Seattle and I worked for a wind energy development company. It was also the year I had a break-out performance at National Championships in Granby, Colorado as a sort of “Cinderella Story of Nowhere” and qualified for my first Elite World Championships.  That was the year things really started to get serious.  This climb was also getting serious.

On the 15th and 16th laps, approaching 25,000 feet, I was feeling it. The descent was the most painful.  I also began to feel the release. In miles per hour, 25,000 is the escape velocity for earth’s gravitational pull.  I was escaping from my own gravity.  Part of it was that my wife, Sarah, had joined for these two laps.  What I felt was a sort of harmony building. Was it that resolving chord I had sought? Harmony amidst this present summons up and down the hill, this pastime on two wheels that had ceaselessly ensured that my life never passed a moment unlived, the people who had fostered the connections to live that life, this body that carried me, this place I called home, this person who was my life partner.  This was the place I had always sought, and had been there before, but now it felt more liberating because of the resolve it brought to this latest adventure. Results and rankings, training targets and podiums all washed away. There was no singular desire I could comprehend a need for over simply existing there at that moment.  

On the last two laps, I was alone again, with a renewed vigor to hit my mark.  I reached the top of Cyrus Gates just as the last sliver of red sunlight snuck below the cloud line. Year 2016. 15 hours and 35 minutes. Elevation 29,047 feet.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Wild West Tour

" last the Lake burst upon us—a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still! ... As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords." So said Mark Twain of the great Lake Tahoe in 1871. The view is no less spectacular nearly a century-and-a-half later, though viewed after a 24-mile and 4,000 vertical foot climb in the middle of a marathon mountain bike race, my thoughts toward it were a bit glazed.   We were atop those snow-clad (yes, still, in late June) mountain peaks aloft much higher than the mighty lake, and we were only half-way done!

Photo by Joe Lawwill/Shimano

We had been climbing into the thin air for nearly two hours, a lead group of a dozen or so, cresting at nearly 9,000 feet.  Carson City, where we had started, felt very far away. My body, and maybe my constitution, had succumbed to Boyle’s Law, and my heart had somehow floated into my skull and was thudding like a metronome.  I focused on calming down, breathing, willing the power to come back into the legs.  The lake below was big and blue and the view of the mountains made me feel better, like summit fever.  This was a contrast to the loud, crowded World Cup.  Now I was alone and it was quiet but for my breathing and my tires in the sandy dirt, the other spandex-clad figures lurching up the hill in front of me, getting smaller.  I wished I was smaller and that I could dash up this hill a bit more efficiently.  That extra muscle I’d put on for sprinting through short-format races wasn’t helping my cause here.  I was used to 800 meters and this was the 10,000. Bike, body and spirit came alive again when the trail turned down hill, but my temporary lapse in momentum had already cost me a top result.  I charged through the rest of the day solo to finish seventh.  A second-tier result for a first-class race. 

Photo by Joe Lawwill/Shimano 

Photo by Joe Lawwill/Shimano

We had just finished the first-ever Carson City Off Road, the conclusion of the 2016 Epic Rides trilogy, and the final stop on a week’s tour through Washington, Oregon, and Nevada.  An increasing number of elite riders and sponsors have put this series (and its $100,000 purse!) at the top of their list - and for good reason.  The air is fresh.  There is a sense of enthusiasm from the promoters, athletes, sponsors, hosts and fans alike.   The level of buy-in from everyone is remarkable.  These events are about a good, hard ride in a beautiful place, based in a nice town with good food, beer and music.   They are the events that you put on the calendar over a year in advance, and pack up the whole family and friends to take part.  The pay is good if you are really fast, and the atmosphere is rewarding no matter how you do.   We collected our commemorative railroad spikes and wedged our tired legs and dusty equipment back into the van.

A week before…

Any time I catch a sweet alpine scent in the air, I’m reminded of racing at Mt. Hood SkiBowl, and any time I think of SkiBowl, I think of growing up racing in Oregon: old-school cross country, long climbs and fast trails twisting through the rhododendron, aspiring to be like those fast dudes, Tonkin, Wicks, Decker, Trebon, becoming part of a tribe.  The last time I had raced here I was in high school, maybe just graduated, a shop-team rider with open-ended aspirations for racing bikes and going to college, yet no concept for returning to this starting line after a journey as great as these last thirteen years.

Thanks to a last-minute organization effort Kona alum Erik Tonkin and his crew at Sellwood Cycles, here we were, most of us anyway, back at SkiBowl for an unofficial homecoming race after nearly 50-years combined experiences shared between us Kona alums - -Tonkin, Wicks, Babcock, myself, not to mention many other familiar old faces.  Even my dad was still racing, and now my wife was here, too, lined up with all of us as we received our final directions.  I felt young and old at the same time.  We ripped out of the parking lot and into a little time capsule for the next two and a half hours.  The trails were just as I remembered them.  I still knew all of the little roots and corners.  As the small field spread out, Wicks and I cruised along the old trails and I wondered how our 18-year-old selves would have done against our 30-something-old selves.  We had three laps of varying length, 30 miles total, and I could have been any age in between 1998 and 2016. This was the first place where I learned to get in the zone, where grinding up a big climb I had those first daydreams, imagining myself snatching that big performance as some big pro in a big race.  This was the feeling I’d brought with me around the world and it still felt the same here, but now I’d been there and back again.  It was a special day.  The reminiscing over cold beers after the race was priceless.    

Photo by Patrick Means

Not Mt. Hood, but Mt. Adams - view from a recon session out in the Gifford Pinchot - still lots of trail damage from the winter. 

Wicks refueling after stretching his legs at the old stomping grounds.

Race & adventure steed for the trip - Carbon Hei Hei Race DL

The Blitz…

Our journey continued south to Bend, OR for the 7th annual Blitz, an invite-only dash for cash from the hinterlands of Mt. Bachelor down into town.  The Blitz is a major highlight for the local riding community and draws a big crowd at the finish line stunt at Tetherow Golf Course.  Eric Eastland and his All Access stage company put on the event.  They’re the same group that does the stage setup for the Superbowl Halftime show, so for one evening out of the year, a handful of us mountain bikers get to feel like we’re part of some primetime entertainment.  It’s legit, and so are the cash prizes and the party.  I donned my glow-in-the-dark Kona chrome shorts, survived some tangled wheels into the local line, breathed some dust, and came away with a good paycheck and a big growler of Deschutes beer.  The only bummer was that a rainstorm blew in just in time for the after-party and the organizers decided to cancel the marquis arm wrestling contest.  Instead of blowing out our shoulders, the $2k up for grabs to the strongest man and woman was donated to the local trail organization, and we all cleaned up early and prepared for the final leg of the journey to Carson City, Nevada.     

 Posters up all over town

25-wide front row before the whistle blows at Wanoga Snow Park

The finish stunt at the end of the Blitz - with another 15 minutes of sprinting across the golf course then a beer chug at the finish line. Brutal! 

Photo by Matt Fox