Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Alaska Factor

The dogs have been anxious and pacing all morning, eager and restless to get their run on.  The day wears on, house projects take the front burner and dogs and running are shelved for the time being.  The dogs finally settled down accepting we were not ready to comply with their insistent demands for a run.  Around that time I started to feel edgy and cranky, when Parke stepped into the room and gently asked "Would you like to go for a run?" to which I replied rather stupidly (and crankily) "Outside?".  Yes, outside.  The stout fall wind shaking the hell out of the remaining stubborn leaves, and (stubborn) me - outside running.  Sure, why not.  I went straight to work locating the appropriate gear.  As I was doing that it occurred to me what Parke had done, and it was no different than what we do with the dogs.  Observe their behaviors, determine when they absolutely must go for a run, or they will start to grate each others nerves, snap, snarl, and eventually retreat into their kennels.  Well played, Sparky, well played. It was clear I was in need of a run.  As soon as the dogs heard my Garmin power up, they were jacked to the ceiling and raring to go.  I had to dig a little deeper to conjure up those kinds of feelings, just hearing the Garmin turn on, doesn't quite turn me on.  

Dressed in a multitude of layers, everything from my Patagonia silkweight capilene long underwear which are 11 years old and still going strong, brushed fleece tights, Mountain Hardwear fleece pants, SmartWool socks, Run Exceed team shirt, and my Marmot windbreaker, ready to take on the trail.  It’s 37.4 outside, warm-enough for this time of year, yet the winds are howling, as if they are straight out of January, foreshadowing our near-future, sending a clear and direct message: you have moved to a harsh climate.  I step outside on the porch to test my outfit.  Fail.  

Back inside another layer is added, my favorite sporty spandex hat made right here in AK by another APU’er Erika Klarr:  E’Klarr Alaska out of Homer.  Then I reapply my fleece headband.  Pick up my custom designed fingerless wool arm warmers which I am calling a "Honey Mama Original".  Sized specifically to fit over my favorite lightweight running gloves, with arm warmers long enough to be used as fold-over mittens, should the cold really hit hard.  I step back outside.  Test two.  Pass.  

I head out the door, hop down the hill channeling my inner mountain goat and testing the merits of my new trail shoes (Mizuno Wave Ascend 8), which I like, but am not entirely sold on just yet.  Parke fires up the Honda ATV, loads George up in his helmeted scarfed tightly bundled get-up and takes off, while me and the dogs follow. Per my Garmin, some 291 feet later we are stopped in our tracks.  Propane delivery!  Rejoice.  

Typically I would be miffed if something came between me and getting my run on, today I was thankful. Thankful because our tank gauge indicated we were in “the red”. Thankful because my list of “must haves” included hot running water.  

I decided to shuffle out to the mail box, because today is Monday.  Which means it is one of the three days per week that we receive mail.  Thumbing through the mail I find the October issue of Running Times (Yay!) and something from our former mortgage company. Meanwhile the propane tank is filled and Parke makes a comment about the cost of propane, and our usage estimate for the past 4.5 weeks.  I go back in the house and step out of the icy wind and take a break to read the mail.  I open up the mortgage envelope and it is an unexpected (or otherwise forgotten) check - the sum of the check and the cost of the propane come out just about even, and by yet another miracle our first propane fill will cost us $4.92.  Step by step we are being eased in to rural life, as gently as possible, guided by faith and fueled by persistence.  Thankful.

The other gift from The Universe that was delivered in the mail was the issue of Running Times.  I sat down, sipped my now cold morning coffee and read the editors letter which highlights this issues features and generally sends some encouraging running related message.  The Editor-in-Chief, Jonathan Beverly has an easy kind of writing style that speaks to me and I happen to think he is kind of dreamy.  What can I say, I happen to be a sucker for greying hair and steely blue eyes. My dreamy husband serves as a testament to that weakness.  In the intro Beverly mentions "The Alaska Factor", instantly I am intrigued.  He starts by saying "Runners from rich, comfortable countries seek out hardships to gain strength; imposing strict training regimens, living in camps, traveling to altitude....the tougher and less pleasant the place and lifestyle, the better for training in the rigors of distance running.  This reality stands conventional wisdom on its head".  And of course that speaks to me, because there is nothing I like more than standing conventional wisdom on its head, thank you, Jonathan Beverly. In a few sentences he basically summed up why we are here.  Life out here is tough and less pleasant.  Back in the city, gainfully employed and living in the lap of luxury at The Labrador House - life was easy peasy, lemon squeezy.  Out here we have voluntarily chosen to "seek out hardships to gain strength".  

The Alaska Factor article was written by Matt McCue and poses reflective questions such as: “Is their environment a horrible place to run, or is it ideal?” and “If success in cross country is determined by toughness, could this grueling place be perfect?” and my favorite “Hills are never a workout focus because Alaska’s rolling landscape provides that stimulus on practically every run.”.  Prior to moving to The Moose Lodge I found I could avoid major hills if I chose to, but since moving here my times have slowed considerably and I’ve been left sucking wind more than I care to admit.    The hills are no longer something I can sidestep, in favor of an easier path.  I’m either charging up hill, or floating down hill (or falling flat on my face to take a dirt nap).  There is no avoidance of the hard, the cold, the hill.  Running at The Moose Lodge is The Alaska Factor at work.  

Joe Friel, renowned triathlon coach wrote a helpful blog post on Functional Threshold Power (FTP) and the impact of altitude on athletic performance.  Down in the Anchorage Bowl you are basically at sea level.  Here at The Moose Lodge, we are sitting about 2300 feet, which I didn’t think would be noticeable in terms of athletic performance.  Reading through the article there is a handy chart:

By my calculations I am should expect to experience roughly a 2.5% decrease in performance.  That seems to be a highly accurate figure.  Last week we made a weekend trip into Los Anchorage and I was able to fit in a 6.55 mile run with Petzl, our faithful Australian Cattle Dog/Blue Heeler.  I haven’t been running as much or nearly that far over the past two months, and I expected the run to feel awful.  Instead I could feel tiny invisible wings on my feet, I charged up a .65 mile hill like it was nothing, I fartleked my way all the way back home.  The air was crisp and refreshing, the sky a deep September blue.  By the time I skipped to the front door I was a better human being.  

Preparing to head out my trail run:
Channeling my inner Chevy Chase circa 1989, Christmas Vacation “Later dudes!”

After the propane guy left and Maya was dropped off by the school bus at the end of our driveway we bundled up (again) and headed out on an ATV ride for Parke and the kids and a run for me and the dogs.  Happily trekking along, taking in the sights, focusing on the trail littered with rocks, roots, and leaves obscuring the former - just happy to be. Happy to exist.  

The view opened up and we spotted two adult trumpeter swans and five young swans, enjoying an afternoon swim.  

Earlier today a dear friend who is in graduate school for nursing called and I was telling her: “I just walk around feeling blissed out all the time!” to which she said “That’s great, but you probably shouldn’t drive for a while.”.  Based on her own personal experience living in an ashram where she surrounded herself in quiet meditation, prayer, yoga and deep thinking, she eventually reached the “blissed out” phase and found she was no longer able to drive into “The City”.  In her case “The City” was quite literally The City, as in New York City.  In any case, her advice was solid, though I wish she would have given a warning out for trail running.  Apparently that should be approached with caution  as well.   

Trekking along behind the ATV, just 12 seconds shy of my magic 18 min. And 30 sec. window, that reliably opens up once I’ve been running that long - that blissed out feeling was jerked out from beneath me, like a rug.  At 18:18, 1.67 miles into the run I saw something rustling in the corner of my right eye, we were at a point where the trail had smoothed out to a fine hard packed gravel and I was feeling....confident  careless.  I looked up to make sure a (wild) animal wasn’t stalking me like prey, at which point a lone rock cropped up right underneath my foot. I was seeing the world from a completely horizontal point of view before the pain hit all I could figure was I was just magically flattened.  I was laid out in the dirt for what felt like a few minutes, but in fact only few seconds had elapsed.  Driven by instinct, I rolled to my left side as I came crashing down and in the process I whacked my left knee, and was covered in a fine dust from head to toe.  I sprang up like I was on fire at which point the kids started hollering “MAMA, ARE YOU OKAY?!?!?!” which got Parke’s attention.  He turned around and I am just standing there and he’s giving me a confused look.  Then the sag wagon backed up and I picked up my ego and slung it on the back of the four-wheeler, and took a moment to be thankful the sag wagon was there.  I wrapped my arms around Parke and we headed down the trail to the creek for a moment of quiet contemplation and creekside thanksgiving.

At the close of the Editor's Note in the October/November 2013 Running Times issue Jonathan Beverly leaves the reader with this sentiment: "As we head into winter, I would normally wish you mild weather and smooth runs, but instead I'll hope for just the right adversity -- be that Alaskan-esque blizzards or body-altering training sessions - to make you stronger, tougher, and a better runner." 

Mild ankle sprain and all The Alaska Factor had its way with me today.  Alaska: 1; Honey Mama: 0.  I returned home stronger, tougher and a better runner - because the Alaskan rug was pulled out from beneath my feet in a moment of carelessness and taught me how to be a better runner in the process.  As I was splayed out in the dirt viewing the world from a horizontal point of view, feeling the sand and rocks brush my face, I felt a sense of peace and thanks for being out on the trail, despite the pain radiating in my ankle.  I learned an important lesson today and luckily the sag wagon was in tow to bail me out this time.  Next time, I may not be so lucky.  

Check out E’Klarr Alaska at:  http://www.eklaar.com

The headband I am wearing in the first photo and hat I am wearing in the fifth photo are E'Klarr products and they're the best thing I have found so far for running and cross-country skiing for their lightweight, sweat wicking, wind protecting properties.  And they come in some pretty rad patterns. Cute matters, even at The Moose Lodge.