Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Elusive Sub 6 Minute Mile

My senior year of track in high school I ran the one mile race three times. I ran a 6:24, a 6:30, and another 6:30. After that last race I decided breaking the 6 minute mile wasn’t in my cards that year and instead focused on the 2 mile. At the time I eased my conscience, telling myself sometime in my life I would break a 6 minute mile.

My naive high school self. First XC meet my senior year. I hit a PR of 18:20 for 2.5 miles and never got faster. I never was fast

I don’t recall this being a flippant assertion but in hindsight it was the most naive plan I ever put forth. While the 6:30 mile left me knowing I could dig deeper, I had no idea how fast a 6:30 mile was and a few years later could barely manage 8 minute mile pace for a quarter mile!

It took me 11 years before I got serious about breaking a 6 minute mile. That was 4 years ago when I was 29. I figured I ought to try before entering my fourth decade of life. And as I began doing intervals I couldn’t even maintain 6 minute per mile pace for 200 meters!

At that time I vowed to start doing more track intervals. But I also ran a marathon and did some other longer distances. I ran some 400s, running them in the upper 90s, slower than 6 minute per mile pace. I just wasn’t anywhere near where I needed to be. But I kept after it, not ready to fully commit to that 6 minutes of pain.

Last summer I broke a 90 second 400 for the first time since high school. Finally!

Sometime last winter I got really motivated to give this sub 6 minute mile thing a try for real.

In April I did a set of track intervals with my friend Emily. The plan was for an all out 800, 400, and 200, each with ample rest in between. I didn’t want to take 10 minutes of rest between the 800 and 400 so elected to do a 4 minute interval at a slower pace. My times were 3:03 despite covering my ears for some of that as there was a tornado siren drill (not sure why at 2 pm on a Thursday), 88 seconds, and 42 seconds. This exceeded my own expectations! Maybe because I was doing them with someone I had ran faster than I had in a long long time. This gave me confidence that a 6 minute mile might be possible.

Emily and I in 2014 on a portage on our Minnesota-Ontario Border Route Canoe Trip. Photo: Erik

After my 25 km trail race in May, I religiously ran track intervals weekly. I thought I wouldn’t have enough time to train prior to my Alaska trip and figured not running for 2 weeks in Alaska would set me back so I chose the last week in August for my 6 mile attempt.

My track intervals went mostly well. Most weeks I was able to meet or sometimes even exceed my pace goals. I mostly focused on shorter intervals with good rest to get my legs feeling a pace faster than 6 minutes per mile. And it worked! At least in terms of getting my 400 pace down. In my 4 x 400 workout I ran an 83 (yes, an 83 and it didn’t even feel that fast), an 84, an 86 (my shoe came untied less than half way through), and an 85. I was impressed with myself. A couple weeks later I did some 300s and actually felt the pace was slow enough that I could work on my running technique- trying to get more “air time” and more forefoot striking.

After a couple days of floating down a river in Alaska, I sought out a track in Fairbanks. I did an 800 in 3:10, above goal but I figured not bad for not wearing my track shoes and having not ran in 2 weeks. Then I did a 600 in 3:23- 8 seconds slower than goal pace. Oh well. BUT, here’s what I was able to do in the workout- check my watch for my 200 splits. In the past few years I’ve worked so hard at just being able to run at 6 minute per mile pace that I couldn’t even check my watch. Now I can! I finished up the workout with some 200s in the low 40s. Thanks to Tiffany for running these with me.

Getting after it in Fairbanks. Wow, I'm already looking super focused only 100 meters into my 800. Photo: hubby #1
Tough Tiff in Alaska carrying our super heavy bear barrel. Photo: Erik

When I told Craig about my plan, he told me a good workout to see if I was ready was to run 4 x 400 meters with only half time rest (so that would be 45 seconds of rest). When he told me this in the Spring, I thought “no way am I ever going to get there.” But as the summer wore on and I planned my last couple track workouts, I decided I had to give that one a try a week before my planned attempt.

It went almost exactly as I thought it would. I did my run first thing Saturday morning like I always do. But this time I took a gel with caffeine beforehand and then did a pull-out on the way to the track. I ran the first 400 in 88 seconds. Perfect, that was my plan. I felt I had more to given on that last straightaway, but this wasn’t an all-out 400, this was essentially the first 400 of a 1600. I wasn’t breathing too hard when I finished and 45 seconds felt like enough recovery. I hit my second 400 in 89 seconds, perfect, and again felt like I had more to give on the last straightaway. But this time I was breathing hard and still 2:1 breathing when I began the third. Somehow I managed 90 seconds on the third. Better than I thought I could do as I feel like it’s the third lap that I always slow on. Now I could barely walk from the finish line to the start of the 400 in lane 6. I gave myself a couple extra seconds (I find it’s best to just go on these workouts and not allow time to think) and then took off. This one was the roughest and I felt a bit like puking. The last straightaway was soooo long. I felt like I maybe had a little more to give as I didn’t have that feeling like I was losing blood to my arms but couldn’t muster anymore speed and ended up with 92 seconds. My heart rate was only 173 at the end of that 400, so clearly, I can do better. Maybe I’m just saving that super hurt for next week?

These times added up to a 5:59. Not bad. If Craig’s theory held true, I was ready. And even if I didn’t break 6, I still felt incredibly accomplished to hammer out this workout (and as a solo effort to boot!)

As I set a date to try to break 6 minutes, I wasn’t very sure I could do it. I’ve met a number of my running goals over the past few years, but I knew this one would be quite challenging. In some respects a 6 minute mile isn’t that fast, but that’s when I compare myself to these blogs I’m reading about women going after Olympic Trials Qualifying times. These are women who can string together 26 miles in the low 6s- so one mile under 6 shouldn’t be unreasonable...but I’ve never been that fast and so it has been reassuring to me that everyone I have told this goal to has said “wow, a 6 minute mile- that’s really fast!”

So I might fail, but if I don’t at least try, I’ll never know. I’ve put off trying for a few years because I’m afraid of failing, but I recently came up with a mantra “you have to fail to succeed.” I know how hard these 6 minutes will be but at the same time I’m proud of myself for being brave enough to hurt so good.

I’m also proud of myself for how far I’ve come.

In the week preceding my determined date, I thought about this mile effort way too much. I thought about how hard it would get with 600 meters to go and decided I needed to focus on a much smaller goal- like 100 meters at a time! I woke up early and was nervous.

I invited some friends to join me as I thought that might help give me a faster time. It turned out my bro happened to be in town from Bemidji which was a real treat! We met at our house at 7 am and ran the 1.5 miles to the track with a short pull-out and again I took a gel with caffeine to try and give me an extra boost as I had rehearsed the previous week.

At the track, getting ready to start. Craig is covering up my head here. Photo: Erik

Once we got to the track, my bro changed into his high school spikes and then we got on the start line. It was a bit of a hodgepodge of previous running experiences and our last conversation before the start was something to the effect that no one except Craig (who is hoping to hit 6:00 min/mile average for the New York Marathon in 2+ months) had any idea if we could run a sub six minute mile. Well, at least we were all in the same boat! I started my watch and we were off.

:41 my bro called out 200 meters in. Darn, felt easy but a bit fast.

1:28 at 400 meters. Perfect I thought in my head and “perfect” echoed behind me by my companion runners.

2:15 at 600 meters. Dead on. Good.

3:04 at 800 meters. Uh-oh, 4 seconds behind pace. Not good. Bjorn picked up the pace and surged leaving me. I couldn’t respond.

My bro again called the 1000 meter split but I hadn’t learned that one. And I was working way too hard to compute the simple math: 3:00 + :45 = 3:45; OK, I got it for next time:)

Craig left me with 500 meters to go.

4:40 my bro called on the bell lap. This really wasn’t good, 10 seconds behind pace. OK, I can still PR if I can run a 90. I tried to run fast. I thought I was running fast. I tried to break it down to each 100 meter but it was just going by so fast anyway.

Erik’s cousin sped by me on the back straightaway leaving just Erik and my bro near me. I tried to give it everything I had but had trouble picking up the pace.



But in hindsight, I’m not quite sure what I was expecting since I was above pace in my 600 workout 2 weeks earlier. The short intervals were good but I needed some longer ones, too.

It’s a bit hard to be completely disappointed by this time given it’s the fastest mile I’ve ran in 17 years and just 7 seconds off my PR. Per my mantra, I have to fail to succeed. This is true in so many aspects of life (especially in applying for jobs and competitive schools) and also rings true with this mile attempt. If I didn’t try, I never would have known and now since I tried and failed, I have a better sense of how I may succeed in the future.

Because I still want to break this elusive 6 minute mile.

Just after the attempt. Photo: Erik

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Crossroads #2: The Business of Racing

When I sign up for races, I think a lot about the athlete aspects of races, but not the business aspects. This past spring, there was one race and one tour that really got me thinking about the business side to racing.

This became obvious when I was at the Boston Marathon Expo with Erik in April. There were numerous posters, paraphernalia, and advertising ranging from the subliminal to the blatant that encouraged the runners to not just make the Boston Marathon something to check off the bucket list, but something to keep coming back for year after year. It was just enough to make those of us who hadn’t qualified feel salty and desire to push for a Boston Marathon qualifying time and those who had earned their start some impetus to earn it again so they will come back to Boston year after year. All this advertising is really good at making us feel that if we don’t do the Boston Marathon we are somehow lesser people. There were the banners everywhere with “#BostonStrong.” There were the posters that included every runners name. The most striking merchandise with this subliminal message was a peg board with room to carefully place a decade’s worth of Boston Marathon medals. And then there are the desirable Boston Marathon jackets that lured Erik, somehow, even though he usually uses his seam ripper to remove any visible brands from his clothing.

Just one example of the peg board...
Maybe these ones suit your decorating style better?

Many ski races are small and operate entirely on volunteer support. There are a few bigger ski races with full-time staff. The Birkie is quite good at advertising and has a monopoly on the upper midwest marathon ski race scene. They have a large budget and a decent amount of this can be spent on marketing which helps maintain its dominance.

A few weeks after I got back from the Boston Marathon, I went for a bike ride on the day of a local MS bike tour. Biking through the staging area at Minnehaha Falls, I was struck by the metal fencing and rows of Porta-Potties. There is so much infrastructure and time that goes into organizing a race or tour. Suddenly this all just made me really sick. Although disclaimer, this did come the day after I had spent 3 hours marking less than 3 miles of a course for a trail running race.

Porta-Potties at the start of the Boston Marathon (although obviously not this year). Photo: Canadian Running Magazine

With so many races and tours, marketers have to dig deep into the psyche of participants to make them choose their race or tour over all the others.

So let’s look into the business aspect of races and tours.

Races cost money. For the competitors there’s the entry fees, transportation, lodging (if staying overnight), equipment for the races and training (much more so in skiing than running), trail passes for training, fees for a training group, and on and on. For the race organizations there are the bibs, the food, law enforcement at road crossings, port-a-potties, shuttle buses, salary for non-volunteer organizers, marketing, etc, etc.

Races take time. There’s the obvious time for the participants but there’s lots of time for the organizers as well. Some are all volunteer organizations while others have several full-time staff. A fair amount of time goes into advertising each event. And for the volunteers there’s lots of time- setting up the start and finish areas, rest stops, handing out food, planning the event if no one is paid to do this.

Races use resources. Think of the rows of port-a-potties. Think about the cups and wasted food and gu packets lying on the ground, and orange gatorade stained snow. There’s the barricades. Think about the trucks hauling all this stuff around, spewing their diesel fumes.

Feed station mess! Photo: Shape Magazine

This list is by no means exhaustive but it is a start to thinking about not just the racer/tourer logistics, but the organization logistics as well.


What are we really getting out of this? A t-shirt or hat (or socks if we are lucky), a medal, some kind of prize (if we are unlucky one of those ugly plaque-things and if we are really lucky- money!), and maybe a meal afterwards.

As the t-shirts, hats, medals, and even prizes accumulate these objects are becoming significantly less luring.

Why do we need an event t-shirt, a medal, or to all start together to feel accomplished? Given the MS ride was a tour only, wouldn’t it make more sense for participants to start from the closest part on the course to where they live to help decrease driving (I hate driving) and not have a rigid start? This would also eliminate the problems with parking at the start of an event and all those concentrated porta-potties.

Why do we (the collective we here, I’m sure this doesn’t apply to everyone) have to get something from the race or tour? Do we really need that T-shirt? Sure, we can wear it again and might make someone jealous which might make them do the event (good marketing scheme) but how many of us really need more t-shirts? Well, we can always make them into quilts...but how many quilts do we need? And what about those medals that go into boxes or hang on hooks- do we really need those? Have the race organizers tapped into something that we want bling or would we be better off without? I’ve recently been thinking about entering into the races where I’m least likely to win an additional award simply because I can’t keep getting all this crap.

One of my latest creations- both something I'm enjoying doing instead of racing while using up some of my racing paraphernalia (those are Birkie Age Class Bells I've used as the feet!)


There is something less tangible we get from these events: achieving a goal. I don’t keep racing the Mora Vasaloppet for the wreath around my neck- I keep training and racing the Mora Vasaloppet for the journey and to see what my maximum potential is. I want to find out if I can be as good of a skier as I want to be.

And thus, what us hardcore racers are paying for, are getting out of this, is a sufferfest! We are paying to suffer!!!

That sounds harsh, but is largely truthful. If our goal is to race as fast as possible, we will be breathing hard and our muscles will be burning, but at the end we will be satisfied to have achieved a goal and we will certainly have an endorphin rush. So put another way, we are paying for an endorphin high!

There is also something incredible about being a part of something big and I have experienced this in the past in some of my larger ski races and running marathons. Anyone who has ever watched a popular marathon at Mile 20 can appreciate this as well, watching a steady stream of thousands of runners go by for hours.

So where am I at with this business on a personal level?

Since I already own a lot of equipment and am going to do some races anyway and hence am already going to pay for trail passes, it’s really the entrance fees, transportation, and lodging that I consider. It’s not that I don’t have the money for these races, but rather I’m questioning is it worth working X number of hours to suffer? How often can I put for the effort that will produce the endorphin high? And as I’ve more recently realized, I pay so little attention to the scenery that I could be racing anywhere and have started to like loop races. But I will say tons of cheering spectators does make any race significantly better. More concisely, lately I’ve been weighing the different factors of course, technique, distance, location, and spectators to judge if a race a good value.

There was one time Erik and I did a ski race near Montreal (the Marathon d’Oka) that was the best value race we’ve ever done. We brought home so much booty from that race (wax, cheese, more cheese, a ski jacket, t-shirts, hats, and that cat crap collector contraption) that it more than paid for our entry fee and transportation. I don’t think it quite covered our lodging though.

I’ve done at least a hundred races and this was the one exception.

Erik in Montreal's Mont Royal Park the day after he got this snazzy ski jacket in the raffle at the Marathon d'Oka.

The last few years I’ve been more selective about which races and tours to do, limiting my number and trying to only do those ones I want to do instead of feel I have to do. Between house projects, vacation, spending time with family and friends, and just wanting some lazy weekend mornings there are a limited number of races I can do each year. With most people having more commitments than I do, my real gripe is do we really need so many races and tours? There are multiples of these every weekend. They all cost money, take incredible time, and use resources- not only for the participants, but for the volunteers and organizations as well. Is this sustainable- for the participants, the organizations, and the volunteers? Is this the best use of our volunteer time? Are there other volunteer efforts that would be better as a society? Many of these events are charities, but if an event costs $100 per person and $50 of that goes into organizing (fencing, police, food, tents, porta-potties, t-shirts, awards), would it be better to just donate $100 to whatever charity of choice and instead just go do something outdoors that day at your leisure instead? Do we really need all the junk we get from races? Is anyone going to see that medal around our neck after we change our clothes?

My point is, where is the balance? How many races/tours are sustainable and how much is too much? Interestingly, in our capitalist economy, ultimately supply and demand will provide the answer!

From the Boston Marathon Expo: If you aren't savvy with a sewing machine, no need to worry, you can pay someone to turn all your t-shirts into a quilt, or maybe you will be a lucky recipient of a free t-shirt quilt!

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Alaska Encore

When my vacation plans for 2018 looked like 2 trips to Alaska were in store, I asked myself if this was overkill? These would be 2 very different trips to a state twice the size of Texas with a March ski trip around the Anchorage area and a summer paddling trip north of the Arctic Circle. I thought about this a bit, but given everyone I know who has ever visited Alaska always talks about “wanting to go back,” I figured why not go back later that year?

Our March ski trip to Alaska left us wanting more. We lucked out with perfect ski conditions but given we were both the sickest we had been in years, we decided this was perhaps our worst vacation ever! Fortunately we got a do-over.

The idea of paddling a “far north” river had been on the radar for a long time. The Yukon held some allure and we almost committed to this in 2015 but for a variety of reasons (largely all the logistics) we scrapped the idea. Besides, I really wanted to canoe a river in the mountains and the Yukon was more like in the foothills.

In 2015 I happened to be flipping through an old National Geographic magazine when a particular picture of the Tinayguk River caught my eye. The river was in the mountains. I did some research and learned this river was class II-III. Given that I’m not one much for whitewater, I started considering my other options and came across the neighboring North Fork of the Koyukuk (the Tinayguk is a tributary of the North Fork of the Koyukuk). The North Fork of the Koyukuk was a class I with small sections of class II.

Zoom ahead a couple years and we decided 2018 was the year to make this trip happen. After spending a decent time pondering logistics for this trip, we decided to fly into the arctic village of Anuktuvik Pass and then hike and packraft to the arctic village of Bettles. Almost the entirety of this trip lies within Gates of the Arctic National Park where there are no trails and absolutely no infrastructure- not even a sign. In other words, my kind of place.

We bought a used packraft and lost no time trying it out.

Trying it out in the living room right after it arrived. Don't worry, we tried it out on the Minnehaha Creek and Mississippi River a couple times before we left.

Here’s a brief day-by-day synopsis of our trip which transpired in early July:

Day 1: We took a 10 person airplane on a semi-commercial airline (Wright Air) from Fairbanks to Anuktuvik Pass. This small plane flies around 10,000 feet allowing for some stunning views. About half way into the flight we approached a broad valley with a wide river. It took me awhile for some reason to realize this was the Yukon! Seeing this iconic gem of the north that is so powerful moved me to tears.

There's tears behind those glasses as I pose with the Yukon! Photo: Erik

As we neared Anuktuvik Pass we were flying directly above the mountains!

This flight was the best $175 I've ever spent. Photo: Erik

  And then we landed in Anuktuvik Pass! After spending so much time planning about this trip it was a bit surreal to finally be here.

Our quartet (Erik and I flanked by friends Sarah on left and Tiffany on right) in Anuktuvik Pass with the plane that brought us there. I was wearing my pack but otherwise you can see our gear in front of us. Special thanks to Dave and Josie Nelson for lending us this bear barrel! Photo: some guy who was hiking out to the Dalton hwy

Once in Anuktuvik Pass we poked around time a bit and then set out on our trip on the tundra.

Starting our hike on the Tundra. Sarah and Tiffany in photo. This is the Anuktuvik River that drains into the Arctic Ocean. Photo: Erik

Throughout our trip we enjoyed mostly Goldilocks weather (aka, not too hot, not too cold, not too sunny, and not too rainy:)

Day 2: More sun and continuing towards Ernie Pass, the divide between the Arctic and Pacific watersheds. We only made 8 miles given the difficult trail conditions (tussocks, deep stream crossings, occasional shrubs) and heavy bear barrel that Erik and Tiffany took turns carrying (we took some food out but it still weighed around 60 pounds). Meanwhile, I labored under my heavy 35 pound pack. OK, 35 pounds isn’t too bad considering it was a dry bag and included our packraft and one lifejacket but since I’m used to about a 15 pound pack it felt heavy:)

Me and my 35 pound pack. The tundra was often quite wet and we were glad to be hiking in our new NRS neoprene boots. Photo: Erik
Me and my usual little backpack as seen here in Colorado's Maroon Bells in 2016. Photo: Erik

Day 3 began cloudy and drizzled on and off. We were still able to see the tops of the mountains but I’m a fair weather camper and really really wanted to sit on some dry ground on our breaks. Hence, we kept our breaks short and kept forging on and covered the same distance as the previous day in much better time. We made it up to the broad Ernie Pass on the Continental Divide where we found some dry ground and set up camp.

Drizzly day and ice on the river. This was the only time I sat down all day and paid for it with a wet butt. Photo: Erik

Day 4: We awoke to clear skies and I immediately declared it was mountain climbing day. We had planned that 2 days of the trip would be dedicated solely to side hiking with the goal of climbing a mountain or two. We hadn’t necessarily planned to climb a mountain from the pass but we decided this would be the best and easiest way to get up high. We looked a bit at the topo map and then I got out of the tent and checked out the mountain to the south of us. This was my first time scouting a route by just looking at the mountain and it looked like the far ridgeline would be quite do-able so we set out for that.

It's mountain climbing day!!! Photo: Erik
The mountain we climbed. Our tents are in the low spot on the divide on the right. We hiked across the base of the mountain and then ascended on the far left ridgeline before making our way across the top.
We brought our running shoes for the actual climb and cached our boots once we decided the remainder of the route would be dry. After starting on a ridiculously steep gravel slope, we made it up to the ridge that was mostly small to medium loose rocks on a solid class II-III route. The top of the mountain was covered in a thick layer of snow on the north side and we had no idea what awaited us on the south slope. We figured that slope would get more sun but being as we were so far north with 24 hours of sun we weren’t exactly sure if it would be snow free. Sure enough, when we crested the ridge it was snow free and we were able to walk across the mountain to the summit.

This was Tiffany’s first ever summit and since this sub-peak didn’t have a name we decided to name it “Tiffany’s First Peak.” The views were obviously amazing!

Tiffany on her mountain:) Photo: Sarah
Me on top. Photo: Erik

Day 5: It was time to move on and so we began hiking along Ernie Creek on a watershed that drains to the Pacific! From here on out the paddling part of our trip could potentially begin. Unfortunately water levels were too low so we kept hiking.

Around this time we began leaving the “north slope,” aka the tundra. The vegetation was getting taller and we had more rocks to contend with. As the afternoon wore on the shrubs got increasingly taller and we had a couple ravines to cross. We had an arbitrary goal of making it to Tributary Creek, but alas, as the breaks became more frequent and we got a stunning view of the Gates of the Arctic (two mountains, Boreal and Frigid Crags, that rise up above the North Fork of the Koyukuk on either side) on a dry ridge, we decided to set up camp (even if the sun wouldn’t be setting for another 5 days).

Our camping spot with the Gates of the Arctic in the background. Photo: Erik

Day 6 involved more tussocks, less tall vegetation, and fewer ravines than the end of the previous day. A bit below Tributary Creek we tried packrafting for about a mile. The water was moving quite fast and there were some big waves with constant channel picking and rock dodging (we’d give it a class II) but overall it was shallow. At one point we decided to do a peel out maneuver to leave the eddy we had stopped in. Erik and I got spun around quickly when the current caught the back of the packraft. This threw Erik off the raft. I braced super hard in front to keep the raft from tipping. Erik kept hold of his paddle and the packraft and was able to walk us back to shore. The water was cold but it was another Goldilocks day and so Erik was able to stay warm as we kept going. Shortly after that we resumed hiking on the east side of Ernie Creek as we could tell there was a big gorge coming up. Later we scouted the water which appeared to be quite shallow with lots of rocks and decided it was better to hike. We were too far out for something bad to happen and the views up on the plateau were stunning.

This is what I came for- mountains rising out of boreal forest! Photo: Sarah
Not bad views with Mt. Doonerak and Hanging Glacier Mountains in the backdrop as Tiffany and I walk along. Photo: Erik
As we were portaging we got back into the trees! We hadn’t seen any trees in 6 days since we left Fairbanks and it was both exciting and a bit bittersweet to be back in the trees as we left the tundra behind and marked the halfway point in our trip.

After some bushwacking through the forest, we arrived at the North Fork of the Koyukuk. We inflated our packrafts yet again and this time, it was for real! We had to always pick the deepest channel and a couple times we had to line but mostly it was nice paddling. We set up camp at the base of Frigid Crags Mountain.

The final section of bushwhacking before we could definitively begin packrafting! I love how Sarah and I defined by our packs. Photo: Erik
Finally packrafting with Frigid Crags on the right.

Day 7:
As a dedicated side hiking day, we had valiant plans to climb a mountain but we awoke to rain and remained in our tents until 11 am. Although the weather was clearing there were still clouds and it was intermittently raining. After dinner we decided we better get out for a hike. We tried climbing a mountain but found that although from a distance it appeared to be grass, up close it was thick bushes up to 5 feet high growing down the hillside. This made progress really slow and after a couple hours we gave up.

Me fighting through the really tall shrubs on the mountain we tried to climb. Sometimes, when the going is this tough, it's better to just try again tomorrow. Photo: Sarah

Day 8: Due to all the rain, the river had risen at least 2 feet and instead of being glacial blue, was now brown silt. We were a bit concerned this would make the water dangerously fast but instead found it made things easier as we no longer had to carefully pick our channels. We made good time and by early afternoon had reached our planned destination, setting ourselves up well for another mountain attempt.

After a successful first summit bid a few days earlier, Tiffany now had summit fever. We set out for Eroded Mountain and were happy to discover the walking through the evergreen trees was relatively easy. Once above treeline there were some shrubs, but significantly fewer than on the mountain we had tried climbing the day before. After a series of false summits, we made it to the actual top- a sketchy bed of shale! We then cooked dinner at a slightly lower spot that had a beautiful view looking back towards Gates of the Arctic. We saw a rainbow but of course that also meant it rained on us :) and :(

This was our absolutely amazing dinner view looking back north this time towards the Gates of the Arctic. Photo: Sarah

The rainbow! Photo: Sarah

Day 9: The next day was only a paddling day. It rained on us intermittently and we were a bit cold. At one point a thunderstorm rolled in quickly. By the time we thought maybe it would be safer onshore, the storm had already passed over. There were a number of gravel bars along our route that provided for great lunch spots and often had some sand that made doing some plyometrics fun (mostly to warm up!). We camped on a few of these gravel bars. That night, at 9 PM, the weather definitively switched. The sun stayed out for good- all night long:)

Day 10: Under sunny skies we departed our gravel bar campsite. 1.5 miles later we realized we had left our water bag and filter. Given we didn’t have any side hiking planned for the day, I declared we go back to retrieve the water bag and filter. Erik and I took off on this mission alone and predominantly portaged upstream along the gravel bars. The current was way too strong for our packrafts to paddle upstream. When the gravel bars ran out, we got in the packraft and ferried across the river. It took us about 50 minutes to get back upstream and only 20 minutes to go back downstream! It was a good thing we did that little adventure because that proved to be the most adventurous thing we did all day!

After Glacier River came in, there was something on our maps labeled “Squaw Rapids.” We assumed these to be Class II and didn’t know much about them. It ended up being about a mile plus long of mostly choppy waves requiring minimal navigation. We can only assume that the high water levels covered up all the pillow rocks and actually made things easier.

The rest of the day we literally spent floating given the packrafts aren’t terribly fun to paddle and the current was trucking along at a good 4-5 miles an hour anyway. We enjoyed the scenery as the trees gradually got bigger and bigger and we started to get out of the mountains. We camped on another gravel bar. Wow, backcountry camping is so easy when there is Goldilocks weather!

Erik and I paddling/floating. Photo: Sarah

Our second to last campsite.
Day 11: Another spectacular weather day. Again, we mostly floated but sometimes did some paddling when we felt we needed to make more time. Now we only occasionally had views back to the mountains.

Sarah and Tiffany floating in relaxed mode. The mountains are now way behind us. Photo: Erik
Day 12: We had a short paddle to the town of Bettles where we met our 10 person plane for the flight back to Fairbanks.

The gravel runway at the airport in the booming metropolis of Bettles. Way just kidding! Photo: Erik
In reflecting on this trip, especially the last 2 days when we had Goldilocks weather, what strikes me is how “normal” or ordinary this trip seemed to me. I love point to point or big circle adventures, and this one being a point to point, allowed for purpose. True, we were above the Arctic Circle and didn’t seen any other people in 10 days, but despite this I felt amazingly comfortable and “at home.”

Monday, July 16, 2018

Crossroads #1: This is Supposed to be Fun

When I first thought up the title for this blog several months ago (or maybe it was even more than a year), I thought it would be a unique title. But if AP Psych taught me anything- it’s that we pretty much all think alike- and so I wasn’t too surprised when Jim Carlen posted a blog containing these 2 sentences: You aren’t a professional athlete. This is supposed to be fun.

A couple years ago I learned there is a semi-pro football league. These guys are good, but not good enough to be pros. And they clearly love the sport- so much that they do this in addition to their jobs and they pay their own way.

That’s when I realized I’m a semi-professional cross country skier! I dedicate a lot of time to this sport, fork out lots of the money I make at my day job to it, and am virtually unknown.

I don’t do this for money or fame. I do it because I like it and it is fun.

But is it really fun? It’s supposed to be fun. It’s my leisure activity after all.

But so many times this skiing business is NOT fun. There’s rollerskiing in the rain, the wrist pain from holding planks too long, not getting the results I want, and sometimes just a general lack of motivation. And there there is lots and lots of skiing on the hamster loops. Some days I love skiing on the hamster loops. Other days it is drudgery.

Rocking the pigtails and hot pink polka-dotted spandex to remind myself that skiing is fun even if it was for the umpteenth time of the year on man-made snow above freezing klister conditions. Photo: Erik

Every once in a while I have a really bad ski. It’s the kind of ski that makes me want to quit racing competitively forever. This past winter it happened at Wirth on their hilly man-made loop. I knew going into the ski it would be hard because I was classic skiing and it was supposed to be an easy day and these two statements at Wirth’s man-made loop are completely contradictory. Add to that temps around zero making for little glide and harder to breathe (I’ve previously wrote about my distaste of skiing wearing a baklava) and I was working really hard to go nowhere.

Here's a screenshot from that really hard ski at wirth. Obviously not going too fast and you can read my comment about it. It was supposed to be an easy ski but my heart rate was hovering in low level 3. I would have had to either walk or herring bone on my skis on the hills to keep my heart rate down any more because the snow was so slow.

Let’s put it this way- I was put on this earth to double pole. I love double poling and it doesn’t get my heart rate sky high when skiing easy. As soon as I start striding, my heart rate skyrockets and so even though I was stoked that the man-made loop had recently been added onto to include some of the Twin Lakes loop, this was not an easy ski for me despite my attempts to keep it easy. (Now I will add here that a couple weeks later the temps warmed up to the 20s and I did the ski again and this time I had glide and wasn’t wearing a baklava and I was like “wow, this classic skiing isn’t so hard!”)

I hate to pick on Wirth but at least twice this winter I arrived there expecting to ski the full man-made loop but there were events taking place and so we were confined to a much smaller portion of the loop than expected. It’s really hard mentally to re-boot to skiing a 2 km loop for 2 hours when I had planned to ski a 5 km loop. I have since learned about a Loppet Events Calendar that will get bookmarked to use in the future!

There are other times when the skier humor comes through. Last October after Twin Cities Marathon our cheer section had the great intention of going for a rollerski. But it was raining and given we had already spent some time biking around in the rain, we decided to scrap the rollerski.

Instead we played a board game- with a twist. In between turns we had to do a strength exercise. This made us less competitive in terms of the board game and also kept us encouraging everyone to take their turns as quickly as possible so we could stop doing push-ups/planks/leg lifts- or whatever other exercise we were doing that round.

Chair dips and abs while Eva takes her turn at the board game Ticket to Ride.

Half way through the board game, Craig’s girlfriend, Eva, who is a bit new to this skiing thing, remarked, “I can’t believe we are actually doing this!”

Of course I thought this was hilarious and now had the added challenge of hysterical laughter while doing my strength workout.

The board game with strength. You can see Craig in the other room in one arm plank position and Erik was doing chair dips which is why his head looks so funny. I'm not sure why there were 2 people at the table of them was clearly slacking off!

I seem to recall other times of skier humor- largely when a group of us is exhausted after a ski race or a really long training day. And always when I convince my little bro to a round of 8 minute abs.These are the fun parts.

Here's a retro photo dating back to 2006 during the old relays at the Finlandia Family Fun Day. I was getting ready to tag off to my little bro and was skiing without poles cause I had really bad tendonitis as I had just completed day 2 of the 100 km race. Photo credit: anyone's guess but probably Mom

Now that I have reflected on some of the not-so-fun parts of skiing, I’m going to bring back my favorite skis from the 2018 winter season. These were the skis that I enjoyed (almost) every minute of and felt so lucky to be a skier in great physical condition.

New Years Ski in Bemidji with my bro and Erik at Three Island County Park. We made it through this ski at -20 ℉ on a trail system big enough (and slow enough at those temps) to only do one loop in 1.5 hours. It’s always such a treat to ski with my bro!

This photo was taken at Three Island last winter but the day after the Finlandia, not the day it was -20 because that's too cold. This was our large ski group that day and my bro and I were taking up the rear on our classic skis. Photo: Erik

Three consecutive Mondays towards the end of January and early February I was able to get off work early enough to do some skiing on natural snow while it was still light at Elm Creek and Hyland- absolutely beautiful to be out on trails I don’t have memorized with the pink sky glowing at sunset.

OK, obviously this photo was not taken at Elm Creek, but it is an awesome sunset photo over the Mediterranean taken last October in Cinque Terre Italy. Photo: Erik

That short Birkie tune up ski at Irondale Ski Trails. ( Yes, this trail system is really short but skiing it forwards and backwards and only being out for one hour prevented boredom. It’s always special to be on new trails.

Perfect mid-winter conditions and temperatures in March in Alaska; best skis at the Beach Ski Trails and Kincaid.

That ski at Hyland on March 24th where we ran into all our friends. So fun to just show up and spend time talking while skiing.

Epic crust skiing- we had a really great day at Wirth (funny that all the ski racers were on the crust while the tourer skiers were doing hamster loops) then followed up with a day on the farm fields by Northfield. Crust skiing is like eating ice cream. It’s like being 8 years old again when the world had fewer boundaries.

Crust skiing one day too late (too much melting) through the farm fields by Northfield. Photo: Erik

Finding a bit more snow which makes the turning (me on right) more fun. Photo: Erik

So in conclusion (and above is a very short synopsis of some examples of fun and misery from the past year), there is definitely fun to be had as a semi-professional cross country skier; however, this is a hard sport and there’s also lots of work and not-so-fun times involved. I guess the bad days make us appreciate the good days so much more.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Crossroads: The Intro

Every February I enter into what I call “skier existentialism.” I seem to forget this phase of my life exists until it creeps in, slowly at first, and then gains a lot of momentum by the 3rd week of February or so. Maybe this is what some people call Birkie fever. It’s what I call skier existentialism.

I’m not really sure where it starts. Maybe it’s all the packing and unpacking, not only for the races, but for the practices, too: meticulously checking off items on the list so nothing is forgotten: skis, poles, boots (and the right combo of each, cause wouldn’t it be terrible to show up to a skate race with classic poles! Although it clearly would be much worse to show up with my NNN boots and pilot binding skis), wax, the right clothes for the weather, dry clothes, food for before, during, after, etc, etc, etc. 5 times a week or so.

Maybe it’s the micro decisions: should I classic or skate today? If I do X workout today, then when should I do Y workout? Where should we go ski? This becomes slightly easier when the only options are Elm Creek, Wirth, and Hyland.

Maybe it starts with the waxing. And not just the waxing itself, but the deciding what to put on the skis. And the layers, and the pure fluoros. And the klister:) And now with my ever increasing fleet, remembering which skis I waxed last and with what wax.

Maybe it’s all the driving. During the non-snow months I use running and biking as transportation and do most of my workouts from home. This results in almost no drive time. But every time I go skiing it’s at least an hour of driving plus putting on boots, off boots, etc. This sucks up so much time.

Maybe because it’s dark on weeknights in the winter:(

Maybe it’s all the January skiing not because I want to but because I feel I have to to do well in the upcoming races and this results in skiing around hamster loops for hours.

Maybe it’s the monotony: City of Lakes Loppet-Mora-Finlandia-Birkie on 4 consecutive weekends every year. Can I really race hard 4 weekends in a row? During the “off-season” of 2017 I did just 2 running races- a 4 mile on July 4th and a 27 km in mid-October and that felt about right over 8 months. But can I just ski easy for a race? I mean, I have enough axes so maybe I should just tour the Finlandia. But then others will see my results and wonder what happened to me!

I do know where it ends: my self-induced pressure to do well. This results in nervous race mornings, a month of diarrhea, and too many Saturday alarm wake up calls. I train really hard for 10 plus months out of the year (because I never really take a month off) to do well for these February races. Don’t get me wrong- I love the training. What I don’t love is the racing. I don’t love this me versus you mentality and who has better genetics, is stronger, fitter, healthier, has better skis, wax, etc. I think us skiers tend to be pretty friendly people and this whole notion of racing against each other kind of debunks that. I’d so much rather just ski for fun but then I guess there would be no goal to work for, no objective way to know if I’ve gotten better, no pushing myself to exhaustion.

This is citizen racing. While the pros think about retiring in their 30s (or perhaps 40s if you’re Bjorndalen) many skiers around me have shown that excellent fitness can be maintained into their 60s. That means I still have 30+ years of this lifestyle! That is a really really really long time and I’m not sure I can keep it up. And what am I missing out on? This is so daunting it makes me feel like I need a break. I’m 33 and the obvious answer here (I can hear my mom screaming at me) would be to have children. But is that really a break? And I’m not so sure I want to have kids. And as plenty of skiers have demonstrated, it almost seems having kids make them faster (I’m talking about some dads out there, too). When it comes to making money I’m not about to try and keep up with the Joneses, but it’s a whole ‘nother story with skiing and so getting back to racing after having kids would only intensify the pressure.

So then, why don’t I quit ski racing? This is going to be the premise for a not yet determined number of posts (with some “normal” posts in between) I’m labeling “Crossroads.” I suspect some others out there have contemplated this same issue- perhaps most poignantly in February.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Switching It Up: A Trail Running Race

Last fall I ran a 27 kilometer road race. I really liked this distance and wanted to do another race of this length but there aren’t many on the road. And that was OK with me because over the past couple years I’ve had some great PRs on the road and I was looking to switch it up this year.

Erik was running Boston Marathon and so I started looking for a spring 25 km as I likely would be doing some training with him. I set my sights on the Maple Syrup Fun Run on May 5th held at the River Bend Nature Center in Faribault. This race is a favorite of my fellow Vakava teammate Craig and his Northfield crew. The winner of each race (there is also a 5 km, 10 km, and 50 km) takes home maple syrup. Moreover, Craig told me he thought I could win the 25 km!

Training was derailed by getting sick and further dampened by some left patellofemoral pain that reared its ugly head after the Birkie. Since I made it almost the first 33 years of my life without this problem I hoped I would be immune to it, but apparently not. By the end of March I made it through an 11 mile run without being sore the next day.

Training progressed nicely over the next couple weeks as I did some threshold workouts with Erik and covered good miles- in between the snow storms:)

Then it was time for Erik’s Boston Marathon. I went to spectate. We were fortunate to fly out before the “snowpocalypse.” As I usually do when going anywhere new, I found a great 10 mile running route that included 4 parks with 2 of them having extensive trails. And by trails I mean nice dirt trails that were dry (while home was getting buried in 1.5 feet of snow). I also chose a pretty hilly route and unfortunately the patellofemoral pain returned.

Undeterred by either the knee pain or the “epic” Boston Marathon conditions (upper 30s, windy, and rainy), I continued with my cheering plan of running 7 miles out to Heartbreak Hill and back to cheer on Erik. I sure was glad to have brought my ski jacket. I knew Erik’s planned paced and had signed up for both text alerts and B.A.A App so I had a pretty good idea of when Erik would get to Heartbreak Hill. Since I didn’t want to stand in the rain for very long waiting for him, I only gave myself about 5 minutes to spare. This was a bit dicey given the terrain was much hillier than I imagined and had to hold my phone in my hand to hear Google Directions (Boston is typical New England where the roads are anything but straight and instead converged in the multiple town centers I ran through).

Once I got to Heartbreak Hill I checked my phone, confirmed I hadn’t missed Erik yet, and waited for him while I tried not to get hypothermia. I was super excited when I saw him and while I didn’t know for sure if I was going to do this or not- I ended up running up Heartbreak Hill on the side street next to the course. I figured this was the best way to cheer for longer and get me warm (I had thoughts of checking myself into the Medical Tent but I’m not quite sure that’s kosher for spectators). Because the spectators weren’t out in full force, Erik and I could see each other going up almost the entire hill. It surely got my heart rate up at Erik’s pace!

Then I continued back to Erik’s cousin’s house where we were staying, climbing some epic hills. My knee really started hurting on the last big downhill but fortunately walking a tad, and then stopping under an awning during a deluge, eased up the pain to a minor annoyance.

The purple circle on the elevation profile is Heartbreak Hill. It pales in comparison to a couple of the other hills I ran that day. Just in case anyone out there is complaining about Heartbreak Hill, you should thank the Boston Marathon for not putting in a much bigger hill into the race as there is plenty of terrain in the Boston area!

After running 24.5 miles in 2 days, once back in Minnesota I backed off my running. We did a fun paddle down Minnehaha Creek and then I did a running shuttle back to the car- only I went the “long” way around Lake Nokomis and included 3 x 1 km as fast as I could go.

Paddling down the Minnehaha Creek through south Minneapolis on April 21st. Photo: Erik

Taking our packraft over the still semi-frozen Lake Hiawatha. Photo: Erik

Then it was time for one last hard workout: 11 miles w/ 8 x 1 mile at threshold pace with only 1 minute in between of easy running. My goal pace was 7:30 and when I realized this amassed to a full hour of threshold I wasn’t sure I could make it, but I was about to try anyway. I had done 45 minutes at this pace just a couple weeks before.

The workout started well for the first 3 miles of threshold. Then the short breaks got to me as well as a set of stairs on mile 4 and my pace dropped to 7:45 average and I was getting really hot (it was a warm afternoon). At that point I decided to bail on the workout. I gave myself a longer rest time (a bit over 3 minutes) and planned to stop to get water at Minnehaha Falls Park. I figured the fastest way to get to water was to do another mile interval, so I did and hit goal pace again at 7:32. Then I got my water (it was from a drinking fountain that likely had just been turned on because it was nasty) and then did one more mile interval which was quite slow at 7:50 pace. So instead of 8 x 1 mile at 7:30 pace w/ 1 minute rest I ended up with 6 x 1 mile at about 7:35 pace but w/ lots of rest before the last one.

It’s always a bit of a let down to not make my goal workout. That being said, I knew it was aggressive and had I backed off to 8 minute mile pace I most certainly would have been able to complete the whole thing. This didn’t make me feel very confident heading into the race but then a couple days before I ran 7 miles easy in an hour (albeit on flat ground) which works out to 8:32 pace. Given this, my goal pace for the race was 8:15 minutes per mile.

Despite a 7 am start, temps for the race were already in the 50s and it was sunny! I guess we are less than 2 months away from the summer solstice. The 25 km and 50 km races started together. We started and I tried not to run with Craig and Erik and let them drift ahead along with one other 25 km guy and a couple 50 km guys. After half a mile that lead pack was out of sight and now I had to pay attention to the markings at trail intersections! My pacing was good until we started climbing a small hill a mile in and that got my heart rate up. A mile or so later there was a bit of a tricky downhill with some loose rock. I try to run these downhills pretty aggressively but this one was a bit gnarly so I did a sideways gallop until I felt confident to just run all out with what I call reckless abandon.

The course consisted of 3 loops. Each loop had a small section in common and then both the second and third loops had different short out-and-back sections.

One of 2 ridges over the Straight River. So pretty. Photo Gaylon Murray

By the end of my first loop, I was a bit disappointed that my left knee was hurting again with the patellofemoral pain. I was only 5 miles in but I guess with the downhills this was inevitable. Otherwise I felt great. There was one guy who was following just behind me the whole first lap but no other women in sight. I took a long chug from my water bottle at the lap and then started running again. The guy who had been just behind me was now just in front of me. We kept running at a decent pace and it was fun to see Erik and Craig on the out-and-back section. There was also a long tunnel on the second lap. Nearing the end of the second lap I was really starting to get tired. My legs didn’t have great spring and I was breathing harder than I wanted. I guess I must’ve not paced appropriately and started out too fast. The good news was either my knee stopped hurting or else I stopped paying it any attention.

Erik emerging from the tunnel! Photo: Gaylon Murray
This is the guy I ran with throughout the race. This was on our second lap when I was trailing him. We were throwing down a bit under sub-8 mile here which did me in. Photo: Gaylon Murray
Craig, who crushed the men's 25 km field, cheers for Erik in one of the out-and-back sections. Photo: Gaylon Murray

The course wasn’t terribly hilly but there were still some hills and by this point I walked up the big hill up from the river. I came through 10 miles at 1:25 and was beat! I chugged more water at the lap. My stomach didn’t feel like taking on food so I grabbed the gel I had and tucked it down my shorts. The guy I had been running with was still right with me and I said something about being a bit sad to already be so tired. He seemed to be in the same boat as me and so we started talking. And we talked the whole last lap which made my effort so much easier and made the race so much more fun. I was also surprised when I was still hitting 8:30 pace at times because my body felt really really tired and we were talking. I was quite sure the other women were very far behind me and after climbing the big hill about a half mile from the finish my legs were dead so I was happy to just run in easy still talking. It was my first ever running race victory- albeit among a small field; and at such a low-key race I can’t find the results.

Running and talking on the last lap with that gel stuffed down my shorts. Photo: Gaylon Murray
My time ended up being 2:15 for an average pace of 8:38. I wish I could have run a bit faster but hadn’t done that many long runs and perhaps that in combination with the hills were too much for me? I’m thinking about doing the Trail Loppet in the fall and thinking maybe I should get in some more training on hilly trails before then.