Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Down Memory Trail

This post was written back in January, which becomes apparent upon reading it. It was one of those pieces that seemed to lack enough purpose or clarity to merit publication at the time. I'm always telling my students that their writing must have a purpose, a theme, a main idea. If they don't know what that theme is, then how can they expect the reader to figure it out?

With the advent of the very spring-like weather this week, it felt appropriate to dust this one off and try to clean it up. I'm still not certain I've nailed the purpose to my satisfaction, but it feels worth sharing at least.

My feet hit the dirt in an easy stride, as I head toward the South end of Peters Canyon Regional Park. I bound over the railroad tie at the gap in the fence and head up through the eucalyptus trees. The pace feels gentle, and even the continuous incline doesn’t seem to increase my breathing. I follow the familiar, dry trail, winding upwards until my legs finally seem to feel the effort, and my heart and lungs respond accordingly. I simply can’t run slowly up this hill.

It’s the first day of a week’s visit in Orange County, and I’m planning out my daily runs with child-like anticipation, fueled by nearly six weeks of holiday excess and sloth instead of running. My legs are ready to get back to business.

I grew up running these streets and trails with the Foothill High School cross country team, and even during my racing days in college I returned to train here over school holidays. My legs know these routes better than my brain, and they turn instinctively onto the East Ridge View Trail, a rollercoaster of hills laid out across the crest of the ridge.

The park is comprised mostly of dry, hard-packed trails, winding their way through the openness of coastal sage scrub, offering rare moments of shade with small stands of eucalyptus trees. The creek running through the canyon below supports a riparian habitat and attracts a variety of birds. The dominant green hue gives testament to the recent rains, and I enjoy the relative lushness that is the privilege of late winter in these grounds where brown normally dominates the palette. New grass coats the dirt between shrubs, and green shoots foreshadow the golden poppies that will grace February and March.

At my current home in the small town of Truckee, high in California’s Sierra Nevada, the trails are deep in hibernation under the snow. It feels good to get some dirt under my shoes in January, and to run at sea level, where the oxygen is thick.

I ran through this canyon at 15 with my high school teammates. It was private property back then, and we had to duck more than one barbed-wire fence to get here. Resting on the edge of the neighborhood, it stretched out into a vast wilderness beyond. As the recklessness of youth often does, our disdain for the rules lent a heady sense of freedom and power. We flew through the canyon without caution, the only humans around, and felt a giddy kinship with the coyotes and mountain lions with whom we shared the trails. We reveled unknowingly in the sweet immortality of youth.

Now the park sits trapped between major roadways and housing developments packed with swimming pools and red tile roofs. But the trails still speak the same language--one I know fluently.

In contrast to my high school days, when we dove into the bushes at any sign of people for fear of being caught trespassing, the trails are now packed with hikers, runners and mountain bikers. Rather than feeling sad at the loss of the wilderness, as I am typically inclined to do, I find myself appreciating the number of people who are out enjoying the trails today.

Automatically, I push hard up each short, steep hill. In spite of my off-season lack of endurance, I decline to take this trail at a relaxed pace. That’s simply not how I run here, and my muscles know it. With the slow awakening that accompanies a long slumber, recognition dawns. We know this place, they say, this is where we run hard, where we search out our limits. And they take me, a passenger seemingly along for the ride, over each hill with a short, quick stride, arms pumping and lungs heaving. It feels good. It feels familiar.

The following day I am headed out to Colonel Barber Park to meet my sister and her two young boys. I pull out of the driveway in my dad’s ’68 VW Bug, and this, too, feels familiar. I hate to even call this car “my dad’s.” This was my car for the first 5 years of my driving life. It still feels like mine, and as on the previous day’s run, my body agrees. Muscle memory kicks in as my heel naturally shifts over, toes still on the brake, to tap the gas pedal so the cold engine won’t die. I need the full foot to brake at the first corner, so it dies anyway, but it’s downhill, and automatically, I roll through the quiet intersection without stopping and pop the clutch, like so many times before.

Cruising down Barranca Parkway, I inhale with quiet pleasure, enjoying the warm January air of Southern California. I flip open the front triangle windows to adjust the wind directly at my face. As my hair blows back, the breeze carries with it the freedom of a teenager with her first car. I am sixteen, and I can go anywhere I want. I briefly contemplate heading down to Balboa. I could cruise the peninsula for hot surfer boys, music up and windows down. But reality snaps me back from those years to my playdate with the toddler set, with its promise of smiles and laughter, and I happily pull into the park a half an hour early to meet my sister.

Unsure of what to do with this nugget of free time, I automatically look at the endless, grassy playing fields with longing. I’m dressed for a run, except for the flip flops, and I silently curse myself for not wearing running shoes. It’s only after a few minutes of staring at the vast expanse of empty soccer and baseball fields that the patently obviously finally occurs to me: With so much well-groomed greenery, who needs shoes? I drop my jacket and kick off my flips at first base, along with any remaining cares, and trot off through the grass.

This particular park is new since my migration from the South, and I’ve never run here before. My feet explore the terrain with that sense of freedom gifted by the absence of any sort of plan. I don’t have an intended number of miles to run, nor a certain pace to hold. I don’t even have a direction, as I’m prancing aimlessly around the sport fields. I decide to make it an interval workout, and alternate my speed: sprint, jog, sprint, jog. I don’t know how long each period lasts – either in time or distance. I just enjoy the racing of my heart, the spring of my toes in the grass, the sweat between my shoulder blades as it trickles down my back.

“Auntie Gretchen! Auntie Gretchen!” calls the five-year-old voice from the playground. Like a school bell at recess, that’s my signal for the end of the workout. I round first base to collect my shoes and head off to push swings and chase kids through the sand.

The following day I talk my mom into going to Irvine Park. She’ll walk; I’ll run. I don’t usually get as many miles here, or as much dirt, as I do at Peter’s Canyon. Still, this park holds even more memories.

One of these memories revisits every time I run the paved hill on the South side of the park. It was here, when I was 19, that I had my single encounter with a mountain lion in the wild. As I neared the crest of the hill, the lion emerged from the bushes at the side of the trail 30 or 40 yards in front of me. She stepped casually into the trail, and I immediately halted the forward progress of my run. Having grown up in the area, I was well-educated in the behavior of the lion and knew I didn’t want to trigger its prey instinct. In spite of a disconcerting lack of fear, I still had immense respect for the animal.

She paused to look at me, and the moment of mutual curiosity makes me smile when I think of it now. I was so naive. But truly, it’s better that way. I felt safe enough because I thought I knew that one should act aggressively toward the mountain lion in the event of an attack. What I didn’t realize was that my own choices and behavior likely meant nothing at that moment. All of the power lay with the lion. And again, I am reminded of the infallibility of youth.

On that day, after the lion continued across the trail into the bushes on the other side, I merely continued (at a walk) down the trail. When I reached the point where she had disappeared into the bushes, I looked up the hill to find her sitting there, calmly looking back at me. What would most likely be a heart-racing, fearful encounter at this point in my life, was then merely exciting and beautiful. I have that lion to thank not only for choosing to give me nothing more than a few casual glances, but also for giving me a powerful memory that’s often been cause for reflection.

Irvine Park was also the site of every one of my home cross country meets in high school, and I can’t run on a section of the course without recalling the feel of that particular point in a race. The specificity of those memories has faded with time; I can no longer recall specific races, and I no longer race rivals of the past as I flee down the trails. The mountain lion, however—I can see her face clearly every time I am there.

These are the thoughts that amble through my mind as I let loose on the dirt downhill that comes in the first mile of the old x-c course. The sunshine of the previous day has given way to a warm drizzle, and I wipe wet hair from my face as I cruise through the section my coach used to call “through the oaks.” On the far side of the creek bed I catch up with my mom and opt to walk the last mile with her. It only makes four miles for the day, but mileage is still trivial in January. Walks with Mom are precious and few.

I’ve heard it said that in life, we are our current age, and we are also every age we’ve ever been leading up to it. This makes perfect sense to me. I am 36, but I am also 12 and 15 and 19 and 26. On the trails of Orange County, more than anywhere, I am a teenager. I’m not the confused, angst-ridden teenager that I may once have been, but I still recall the joys, some of the challenges, and the simplicity that often accompanies youth. When I run here, I can let go of goals and needs, and yet still run hard. Somehow, I can tap into every type of runner I’ve ever been—5K road runner, miler, trail runner, ultra-runner—and be all of them at once, while defined by none. If a place can have a memory, the trails of Orange County remember exactly who I am.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Cool Pictures

It was a trail runner's weekend, and it was just what I'd been craving.

On Saturday, Diana and I got up way too early for a non-race day and headed down the the hill through the freshly fallen snow for a long run on dirt. We managed to get in a relatively mud-free 21 miles in Auburn, enjoying the empty trails, the serenity of the lifting fog and the beautiful north fork of the American River.

Diana navigates the foggy oaks.

A vulture spreads its wings.

Foresthill bridge

At 11:00 we headed over to volunteer and cheer at the Way To Cool 50K. Here are some photos from the Highway 49 aid station.

Max King

Geoff Roes, still in third even after a rumored wrong turn

Victor Ballesteros

Rod Bien

Joelle Vaught

Joe Palubeski, who totally looks like he's giving the volunteers the business, doesn't he? Hee hee.

Bev Anderson-Abbs gets some quick aid.

Mark Tanaka

Darcy Africa

Jenny Capel. She had a woman right on her heels who totally had a target on Jenny's back, but of course she held her off. Jenny's a bad ass!

Mark Gilligan

Rick Gaston flashes the volunteers that charming smile.

Sunday, Betsy and I headed over to the hills east of Reno to explore some new trails. On this day, we had a much needed late start. We had no idea where we were going, and just spent the afternoon navigating new terrain, laughing, sharing life stories, and enjoying the sunshine.

These are the things that will get me through to next weekend.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Great Ski Race 2010

Last Sunday, I joined over 1,000 other enthusiastic skiers for a North Tahoe tradition: The Great Ski Race. This 30K course travels from Tahoe City to Truckee, and provides a venue for everyone from elite racers to beer-drinking party-goers. My day involved reconnecting with friends, heart-pumping hill climbing, cautious descents, and, of course, a few good crashes.

View of the starting area from wave 4

The forecast had been for cloudy skies and a chance of mixed rain and snow. Not exactly good news for a fair-weather skate-skier like me. What we got was yet another blue-bird Tahoe day. It was cold enough at the start for some fast conditions, but warmed up to make things a little mushy by the end. (I guess the key here is to ski faster and you'll get good conditions the whole way!)

Susie is ready to start!

In addition to attracting talented skiers from all over the country, this race is one of those community events where I feel like I see every local I know: neighbors, friends, co-workers, students. It makes for an enjoyable day, and helps me remember that my goal here is fun, not competition.

The race starts in six different waves. You're assigned to a wave based on your previous finishing time at this race. (If you're a first timer, you have to start in the back.) The fast kids take off first, and each wave has progressively slower skiers until you get to what they call the "party wave." I ended up in my standard wave 4 - somewhere between the real racers and the partiers.

Racers start with their skis in the groomed tracks, and when that wave starts it's double-polling only (no skating) until you get a couple hundred yards out where the tracks end. Then, it's skate like mad through the wide stretch to try to get ahead of as many people as possible before the inevitable bottle-neck that occurs almost immediately. Since I always get my butt kicked at this race I don't take it too seriously. Thus, I always find this mayhem at the start to be terribly fun!

Soup station #1, at the top of the pass

It's crazy to me that the race never really seems to thin out as much as I'd like. For the entire first 10K it seems like I'm knocking skis with people. This isn't a big deal, until you get a klutz like me tangling you up enough to cause a crash.

Aside from the glaring disadvantage that I have ghastly skating technique, this course works well for me mentally. The first 10K is all uphill, which is, of course, where I excel. I pass folks like mad all the way up. By the time I reach the top, all the hard stuff is over with, and I still get 20K of trail to enjoy.

The next 10K is downhill, and the last 10K is rolling. This, of course, is where everyone I passed on the way up kicks my spineless, fraidy-cat, I-suck-at-downhills booty. But the scenery is awesome!

Here's an extremely short clip of the trail. I had a rather tenuous grip on my camera, and knew I was risking a fall by trying to hold a camera and ski pole at the same time, so the footage is sub-par to say the least, but it gives you a little idea of the trail, anyway.

A race like this is a perfect way for me to start the season. It's a killer workout, and a huge exercise in humility. For twenty kilometers I am passed by little girls and old men alike. I was passed at about the 15K mark by a former colleague of mine who is a great skier. I couldn't figure out why she was even behind me in the first place, until I realized she was just pacing her daughter. And I'm not sure, but based on size, her daughter couldn't have been much older that eight. They beat me by 14 minutes.

View on the descent

I had a few good crashes on some of the steeper downhills, but nothing too painful. I actually couldn't help but laugh as I looked both up and down the trail to see skiers everywhere, sprawled pell-mell about the trail, those who remained upright trying to navigate the human obstacle course. Such good fun!

The finish of the race consists of a portion that I like to call "The Ice Luge." After your muscles are quivering from the exhaustion of navigating 30K, the skier is required to negotiate a series of narrow, steep, hairpin turns. If you're like me, about 500 skiers have already come through to scrape the top layers of snow off, and you're left with a scooped-out track of ice. Slowing down? Forget about it. It's so terrifying for me that I always find myself laughing through the whole thing.

Way back up there at the top is the end of the "Ice Luge" section. Notice skiers are still braking hard toward the finish line.

Once you survive that, you pop out onto the wider, downhill stretch across the finish line. This part is much easier because it's wide enough to make turns and slow down. Of course, many skiers think they're home-free and carelessly get up enough speed for an exciting crash. Spectators always have a good time at the finish of this event!

Many skiers come across the line with their feet in the air. Oops.

Thanks to Tahoe Nordic SAR for putting on another great year at The Great Race!

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Iditarod 2010!

It's an exciting day in Alaska, and people from all over the world are watching as 71 mushers and over 850 dogs take to the trail for the 38th Iditarod. For lovers of endurance events, this one really is the ultimate. Dogsled teams take between 10 and 14 days to cover 1,100 miles between Anchorage and Nome, traveling across frozen rivers and high mountain passes, through the interior of Alaska, and along the coast. The race, just like its home state, is one of epic proportions.

For my own brief stint running dogs, I spent a season working as a dog handler for a musher in northern Minnesota. It was an amazing winter and fulfilled most of the dreams that had brought me from southern California to the north woods. If you've never driven a dog team across a frozen lake, I highly recommend you put it on your bucket list. It's difficult to describe the experience: the excitement of the dogs born to pull, the frozen air flying past your cheeks and stinging your eyes as you lean into a turn, your lead dog so far around the bend that you can't even see her anymore. It's magic.

During that winter, I read every book I could get my hands on about dogsledding, and the musher's library was extensive on the subject. If you think I didn't dream of running the Iditarod myself one day, then you clearly don't know me very well. I still love the idea of it, but I learned enough during that winter to realize that running the Iditarod requires not only a lifestyle commitment to prepare, but that the race itself presents some challenges I don't think I'm equipped to handle (sleep-deprivation being the first to come to mind).

I still enjoy spectating for this one though, and the race website offers more information than I can really absorb. I'm also subjecting my students to a cross-curricular Iditarod unit this year. (Once I learned how much they all love dogs, I couldn't resist.) We'll be learning a little history, following the mushers online and running some statistics during math, and reading Woodsong, Gary Paulson's memoir for middle-grade readers about running the Iditarod. (If you're interested, Paulson is a fabulous writer, and his version of the book for adults is called Winterdance.)

Here's a little teaser video, offering a glimpse of some of the excitement of the race. It's short (about a minute) and put together by Dallas Seavey's sponsor, but I like it because it has some great footage and appropriate, heart-pounding music.

Here's one that's a bit longer, and was sort of an introduction to the 2008 race. The musher's it names are from that year's race, but the Iditarod tends to feature a field of extremely experienced mushers, so it isn't surprising that you'll find most of those same names on this year's start list.

Best of luck to all the mushers and dogs out there over the next two weeks!