Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Twice Around

I think the first time you do any sport you play by the Rocky I rule. The goal is to last the fifteen rounds of the experience while some short old guy says, "you're an animal". Bruised and bewildered you should finish aware enough to shout out for the shy pet store girl and if lucky collect an Oscar for best picture. You will get later attempts to handle Creed, the Russian, or Mr. T. The first time is about going the distance.

The clerk at the local ski store was the first person I told that I was thinking about skiing a 50k. I explained to him that I hadn't skied since Reagan was in office and the goal was by the end of winter to be able to ski that length under the five hours and fifteen minute time cut off with the small issue that it never snows at my home city. I asked "What skis would do you recommend?"

He looked at me at the same way that a dog owner looks at their pet when they realized it swallowed a golf ball. "You know that fifty kilometers is really far?" Instead of buying, I rented skis for a while.

At the Team in Training information meeting (a fundraising organization for Leukemia Research), Dave, who became one of my coaches, talked about how 25k was the equivalent of a ski marathon, and he was thinking about emphasizing the valor of 10k for novice skiers. I asked him what it would take for the 50k. He, too, said, "that 50k is really far."

But I spent the winter practicing anyway with patient coaching and quality three-hour car rides. I was in decent shape but still had technique problems. I have three athletic attributes - I am good on a kickboard in a pool, I get very hot when I exercise, and I have strong determination. Coordination isn't a personal skill and even now I still can only really pole on my left side and can't really balance very well on my right leg. I look longingly at the gracefully strides of expert skate skiers the same way that a prairie dog must look at a gazelle. At some point there must have been a common evolutionary ancestor, but we each had specialized a long time ago.

Headed to the race I was confident that I could make the time cutoff unless there was a snowstorm or I messed up my hydration. For the later I had been practicing by putting perpeturm, a sugary fuel mix like cool aid with the calories cranked up, in with water into my camelbak reservoir for nutrition. It is trail mix in a tang format.

For the weather, the six times I went to practice skiing I had nothing but blue skies and 40-degree highs. I had lucked into missing all of the snowy days in the Sierra, and it had been one of the driest winters in the Rockies. If it were to snow I would have to improvise.

The night before the flight to Bozeman, I put the perpetum in the camelback and carried small snacks on the plane. I had not been to Montana since right after graduating from college for my roommate's wedding and looked forward to seeing him, his wife, and their four kids. It had been a long time.

Bozeman is a charming compact town that blends quickly into the rolling hills and jagged peaks that surrounds it. A love of hiking is almost a requirement for citizenship, and there very well could be more dogs than people. It has successfully kept its main street, a victory against the malls of America, and shops range from the expected sporting goods store with a rifle as a logo and gift shop with a moose crossing sign in the window to the unusual authentic Thai restaurant named Smilers. In San Francisco a place called Bang and Tail would be a bar, but in Bozeman it sells biking and skiing equipment. Foot apparel is available at Boots and Shoes, with the later seeming like an afterthought when shuffling through the mud of the early spring thaw. It is a boot kind of town except for the scuba shop, which felt about out of place as me. If in California we dream of mountain retreats, then from time to time in Montana they must think of warm beaches. Escapism is universal.

My roommate's kids are being raised as good Christians and Red Sox fans. They wear the caps more of the second and don't seem amazed that the Red Sox won the series. Faith is the strength that gets you through winters not just Octobers. My Giants lack Montana's natural modesty and kindness, but my roommate's family has that by the bushel.

After a pleasant day spent in Bozeman, complete with a tour of the noodle on stick art sculpture and nice morning walk, I met up with the rest of my teammates for the bus trip down to West Yellowstone. Instead of looking out the window to see actual wildlife we watched a video about a pack of wolves called the Druids that were released from their cages and sent out with GPS collars into Yellowstone. They played, howled, and hunted together, and I thought about how our own little team of charity skiers had done a similar adventure of traveling out into a new world unsure of the terrain but confident that we could handle the task together. The wolves then ate a deer and bred off-camera to make a litter of four cubs, and I felt the analogy wasn't going to work as well.

The ski race wasn't the only thing in West Yellowstone that weekend; there was also Sno-Blast, a convention for artic cat snowmobile dealers. Snowmobiliers are people who enjoy nature with the smell of napalm. They wear thick helmets to mask the sounds of their engine for themselves but leave the noise for everyone else and large neon jumpsuits that make them look like the Pillsbury Doughboy with a Star Wars fetish. They are the answer to the question of what would happen if bad taste were given a bunch of money and proceeded to drink heavily, smoke consistently, and destroy the hotel hot tub.

Needless to say there was a slight body composition difference between the cross-country skiers and the snowmobiliers, and I was a little disheartened when the hospitality clerk got me confused with the snowmobile crowd. I wanted to lean over to her and say "no, really I am here to do the 50k," but I think she would have just pointed me to the bar and told me to keep drinking.

The town of West Yellowstone was friendly like that. The ski shop there that sounds like a San Francisco bar is called "Free Heel and Wheel" and serves a great mocha. Most of the town was motels and gift shops, but they did have an I-Max theatre that showed NASCAR racing twice a day and a small zoo consisting of grizzly bears and wolves. I wondered how the animals felt to be caged so close to an actual park and thought the experience must be similar to the prisoners in San Quentin who can look out across San Francisco Bay to the sourdough city. Escapism is universal.

After race registration, a pasta dinner, a good night's sleep, and two pancakes for breakfast I arrived at the starting line for a quick warm-up. I was in the last wave with most of my coaches and lined up next to them. For the first fifty yards of a ski race you must double poll, which is to say you can't use your legs. The gun went off and I pressed forward. I could poll well, but my entire team had passed me on the first hill. It was going to be a long day.

Thirty minutes into the race it started snowing. It was a light flurry at first but then turned to large wet flakes that clung to my sunglasses. The 50k race had become a great deal harder.

One of the secrets of endurance racing is know what you can and cannot worry about. Your thoughts won't change the weather and so it is important to concentrate on what you can control - your pace and fueling. I took the first sip out of my camelback and realized only then that after three days perpetum in water ferments. Nothing grows in Gatorade, but the problem of drinking something healthier is that it was healthier for other creatures as well. Despite my careful preparation, my camelback was useless, and I would have to rely in the food I kept in my pockets and the water on the course.

By the first water stop I had passed a coach and her partner. They have much better technique than I do, but the thick snow meant that gliding wasn't going to work very well. Without the glide we were left to run through the snow with two very large sticks attached to our legs so everyone was going to be awkward – dashing across the snow, we looked more like penguins that deer. With my heart rate was ten beats above where it should be, I was worried that I was going out too fast because but there was a loose 11:30 am time cut-off for the first lap and I had not this far just be push aside.

Despite the weather I kept getting hotter and spent most of the time looking at the backs of two skiers ahead of me. By the third water stop I passed them as well in full throttle to make 11:30. Right towards the end, just before the Subaru ski team lapped me, I caught another group of teammates/coaches.

I went down the long straightway to the lap marker at 11:34 and was very nicely allowed to continue. (The year before the cutoff was noon, so they weren't sticking too hard on this point). The race close was at 2:30 pm so I would need to the second lap in just under three hours.

I shed my useless camelback and long sleeve shirt and gave these to our team managers extraordinaire, Barb Smalley and Ananda Baron, who kindly checked on everyone. They were next to the race director and could listen on the radio for our race numbers - mine was number 390. Down to a red fleece vest and a short sleeve t-shirt I headed out again to do the course one more time.

I don't believe in second chances. Even if you arrive back to exactly where you were before, you will be older and more tired when you look at that same path. Not that there isn't the longing - I have the times when I wish I wasn't as shy like a life long audition for the lead in "Sideways" - but the things you do can't be taken back.

One of those days I wish I could do over was May 2, 2004, the last time I did a race with Team in Training. The Olympic distance triathlon race was meant to be a tune up for a longer one a few weeks later, but I made a series of mistakes and was betrayed by two of my athletic features - that I exercise hot and that I am determined to go through anything.

That day I was amped from watching my teammates do well the day before and when I passed the final transition on to the run course the cheering of young, attractive women made me want to push even harder. I drank water and Gatorade before and during the race, but in retrospect I should had five water cups at each stop instead of just one.

The last thing I remembered I was three hundred yards from the end of the race at the base of the final hill with the finish line just around the corner.

I woke memoryless in a hospital. A mere minutes away from the end I had a heat stroke and seizure and had to be helicoptered out. A heat stroke is when the water in your brain has evaporated and your circuits are literally frying. I fear for what I might have lost. Barb came as quickly to the hospital and after an overnight stay I was released physically okay but restricted from doing any events in the heat.

A few months later I realized that if I could go far in the heat then I should try it in the cold and decided to switch sports to cross country skiing and came up with the silly goal of a 50k.

Yes, I don't think we ever get truly get second chances, but what we can get is second loops. Often we tend to travel in circles and when we come to that familiar fork, more worn and weary, we know the weight of each. The first time through a loop is done with blind exuberance that we had in our twenties. But now as we wander the second time through what we lack with energy is made up with focus.

This ski race wasn't a comeback. I can't return to the heat. But it was a chance for me to show that I still could go out and seize a day. Perhaps I wasn't the dominant wolf in the pack, but I still could hunt and howl at the moon. This race was about going the fifteen rounds.

I slowed down to conserve energy and returned to the first water stop just as they were closing it. They had already removed the trail markers but still had some water and PowerAde left. They asked me how many people were behind me, and I told them at least six. As I left they poured some more cups, which I didn't realize were going to be left unused.

On the second loop without kilometer markers I had no idea how fast I was going because I could not see anyone ahead either and kept myself amused by mumbling movie quotes. My favorite was King Théoden from the "Two Towers" when he was on the wall at Helms Deep as a sea of orcs attacked, "Is this all you have Saruman? Is this the best you can do?"

But whom I should have been really quoting was Frank the Tank from the movie "Old School." The two of us shared a moment of being out on our own without much clothing convinced very much that there was a pack of like mind people following them. Franks wife pulled him aside and asks him what he is doing and in a slurred moment of exuberance he responded, "We are streaking".

I was out there, too, streaking and striding in my short sleeve shirt. Only there was no one in a minivan to pull me over. The skiers behind me had left the race, and I am making a new rule that you know it is a tough ski day when your coaches from Alaska and Latvia drop out because of bad conditions. Later back at the hotel, we would joke that DNF stands for "definitely not foolish" But I had only me, two flasks of hammer gel, and geeky movie quotes to keep me going.

I only started to really worry when I found the second water stop had been abandoned. I had not seen anyone in an hour and wasn't carrying water. I could still follow the deep tracks, and onward I trudged. I started to fall more going down hills because my core muscles were tired, and the climbs seemed twice as long the second time around.

I wasn't the only one worried. Ananda and Barb were frantically listening on the radio for skier 390. If it had been anyone else, anyone who they hadn't been to the emergency room the time before, anyone who tended to be at least somewhat sane during a race, they probably would have relaxed, but I was the last one out. Why was I out there with a short sleeve shirt? Could anybody see me? If they can put GPS collars on wolves why can't they put them on skiers?

50k is far. It is roughly five miles further than a marathon. Sometime between what would have been the second and third water stops I passed that point slower than I have ever run that distance. It was going to be a long day. The one little bit of luck I had graced me at the third water stop. They had still had a few cups left and some cookies, and again I left some water for the non-existent people behind me.

Invigorated I looked at my watch and realized that I was going to have to really step it up to make the 2:30 pm cut-off. I started to push hard again and saw my first person in about two hours who was taking apart some of the 10k course. He radioed back to the finish line, and Ananda and Barb were relieved.

I ran into the head coach with about 3k left on the course and kept pressing to make the time. One wrong turn during the final chute made a me have to go over some gravel to get to the finish line. My watch said 2:26 and I felt I did not go all this way to let mere gravel get in the way. I hopped over the gravel and skied back and forth to the finish line. Expecting me to come down a different route six of my teammates came running down to greet me at the end. Ananda quickly put an old fleece over my exposed arms. The clock was at 2:27:30. Two and half minutes to spare.

I finished 164 out of 164 roughly fifty minutes behind anyone else. Of the 209 people who entered the race 45 did not finish which is just over 21%. The people with common sense were from places like Saskatchewan, Colorado, and Vermont where winter isn't just a weekend folly. One of the Subaru professionals called it a day early, as did four of my coaches. I was the sole team in training participant to finish and one coach and our category two bike racing captain finished as well. I have never been dead last at anything and felt so proud.

I had gone the fifteen rounds.

And if Rocky can shout at the end of his match so can I.

I want to really thank Ananda and Barb. One day we will have an ordinary race day with fair temperatures and sunny skies. We have been through so much together, and I hope you remember the good parts. I cried a little when Ananda drove me to MacDonald's afterward because I was so happy to have finally reached that finish line that has escaped me for ten months. And so happy that I could share it with her.

I want to thank my mentor Tracy and her partner Sigrida for so much guidance and not to mention rides up and back the to slopes every other weekend. I hope my offbeat humor was offset with my spiffy iPod.

I want to thank the coaches and captains, and especially Scott for leading the entire gang.

50k is far, and while I won't pretend that it wasn't deeply personal I won't forget the other reason I did it. I am just so grateful to have done a second lap, but the purpose of the program is to give cancer patients a second lap of their own. During the course of training we heard statistics like 80% survival rate, which can seem abstract at times. But when I look at the numbers of the race as a comparison, I realize that 20% can include quite a few people who are noble and special on their own. I don't want to lose any of them.

Thanks again to all