Thursday, September 29, 2016

Into the North Wind


I'm preparing to send out the first batch of "Into the North Wind" photo books. These feature a magazine-style layout for my story of cycling across Alaska on the Iditarod Trail in March 2016. It's been an enjoyable project, but the final stages are always grueling. I'll be glad to release this into the world, which is the best way of letting something go.

A brief summary of the narrative: In early 2015, I finally committed to a long-standing but intimidating dream to ride one thousand miles across the frozen wilderness of Alaska. As soon as I launched into preparations, things began to go drastically wrong, until I was standing at the starting line of the 2016 Iditarod Trail Invitational and more convinced than ever that Nome was a step too far. The rest is the story of taking on the most fearsome endeavor of my life, one tentative step at a time.

If you've read "Be Brave, Be Strong," this is a fitting sequel, with a lot of the same themes. I sent out an early copy to a friend who recently posted this excerpt on Facebook, which sums it up:

"Most of the answers we find in endurance sports are contradictions. We suffer to feel alive. We exhaust our bodies to fill our souls. We compete against others to bond with them. Beat will rant about the insignificance of sport amid all the issues facing the world, but much of his free time is dedicated to participation, as is mine. I have raced many thousands of miles, both as a mountain biker and a trail runner, and feel no more satisfied or accomplished than I did at the starting line of my very first race. I fear I’ll never be satisfied. But no, fear isn’t the correct word at all. I’m glad I’ll never be satisfied.
Sport is an enduringly beautiful way to stay in motion, experiencing life."

The photo book is something I've long wanted to make. During the Iditarod I captured a number of compelling images, and it's always a little disappointing to post them on my blog and let them disappear into the vacuum of cyberspace. A paperback is something tangible ... a sort of scrapbook ... and was fun to create. These will be available through the end of this year. Signed copies can be ordered at this link:

Into the North Wind full-color photo book, $29.95 plus $5.95 shipping:
http://www.arcticglasspress.net/agp/?wpsc-product=into-the-north-wind

A digital version of this photo book is $9.95 for a screen-quality PDF, e-mailed to you:
http://www.arcticglasspress.net/agp/?wpsc-product=into-the-north-wind-duplicate

There's also a "trilogy" package of "Becoming Frozen," "Be Brave, Be Strong," and "Into the North Wind" for $49.99 at this link:
http://www.arcticglasspress.net/agp/?wpsc-product=three-book-package

On Nov. 1, a traditional black and white paperback and Kindle version will be released on Amazon. Pre-orders here:
Into the North Wind: A thousand-mile bicycle adventure across frozen Alaska

The table of contents and a screen-shot of (non-consecutive) photo book pages:



As always, I appreciate your support in these endeavors. Even as a journalist there are much more lucrative things I could be doing than autobiographies about obscure endurance sports, but I'm grateful I've had the opportunity. I may branch out to different genres just yet, but this was a particularly meaningful experience that I tried my best to capture. 

If you have any issues with the link or other questions, please e-mail me at jillhomer@gmail.com. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

First days of autumn

I was glad we were returning from Europe just in time to catch the peak of autumn in the Colorado high country, and hopeful that summer and all of its supposed air toxins were long gone. This apparently wasn't the case, as I'm back to sucking in the outdoors all over again. Maybe my breathing difficulties will eventually clear up, or maybe they're all in my head ... something I'm inclined to believe, as any discernible pattern or cause remains elusive. 

Last week in Italy, I engaged in 20 hours of moderate to strenuous effort, largely between 5,000 and 10,000 feet, over 65 miles with more than 26,000 feet of climbing, and had no issues, not one. Pretty much all I ate in Italy was pizza, bread, and pasta. My sleep was poor and I was stressed out for various reasons, but physically I felt fine. After three days in the states, I'd returned to struggling mightily and sucking on the inhaler I hadn't touched in a month.

 Full disclosure: I neglected my asthma medications for the last two weeks of the trip. I have no excuses, and obviously I'm the one who has to suffer if they were in fact working. For the first two days at home I felt great, jet-lag be damned. So on Wednesday I set out for a long ride, hoping to kickstart winter training season.

Maybe six months mostly off the bike has left me in poor shape for a 50-mile ride with 7,000 feet of climbing. That seems likely. Anyway, it was going well for the first 30 miles, but I became a bit stressed descending the singletrack at Betasso, which perhaps triggered the airway obstructions that almost prevented me from making it home.

 One and a half miles from the top of Flagstaff Road, I became so light-headed that I had to pull over and sit down on a culvert. This break set off a bout of hyperventilating that became worse and worse. I texted Beat and said, "I'm on Flagstaff, having tough breathing issues. If you're home can you come pick me up?" I already knew that he was out for a run, so I waited ten more minutes and commenced crawling up the road, pedaling as slow as physically possible while taking short, rapid breaths. If it wasn't Flagstaff I certainly would have walked, but my ego won that battle. The whole episode was embarrassing. When I finally made it home, it took nearly a half hour to finally "catch" my breath. Beat tested my blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and heart rate. Everything looked normal. I'm honestly baffled. "It's all in my head" is about the only explanation that makes sense.

 The hyperventilating episode took so much out of me that I took a day off on Thursday. I set out Friday for another "test" effort, this time hiking up Bear Peak from Boulder. This is the route that gains nearly 2,000 feet in the final mile before the summit. For me, steep hiking is more strenuous than cycling. But it seemed the safer bet, since I'm currently in much better hiking shape, and also I'm afraid of riding a bike right now. I didn't push the pace but still bested my PR. No breathing issues at all. What gives?

 I guess it goes without saying that I'm faithfully back on asthma meds now, and gearing up to likely start immunotherapy in mid-October. I expect to feel terrible during this treatment, but it's worth a shot (Ha! Shot.) I'm also considering cutting wheat out of my diet, as this seems to be the thing to do when one has a mostly inexplicable health issue. Wheat has been tied to grass allergies in the past. Full disclosure: I'm loathe to do this and may put it off for a while to see whether immunotherapy works first. I'd basically rather suffer through horrific allergic reactions twice a week than cut out pizza and cake. (Okay, I'd rather cut out cake. But all of my research points to immunotherapy being the one thing most likely to work. And if it doesn't, psychotherapy may be next.)

 Anyway, Beat and I got out for an autumn hike up Niwot Ridge on Saturday, and I was struggling again. After seeing summer temperatures all week, we were surprised when it was 44 degrees at the trailhead, and it only got colder from there. A fierce wind raced down the ridge, driving flurries of snow at face-stinging velocities. Neither Beat nor I had the ideal number of clothing layers. But I loaned him my mittens and stayed mostly comfortable, except for the weird light-headedness and staggering.

 Beat found a nice wind-block just before we turned our backs on winter and returned to fall. Without knowing what's causing my breathing issues, it's difficult to say whether I'll even be able to handle winter training. I'm still hopeful that once the snow flies, everything will turn around. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Final day of Tor

For the two weeks I spent in the Alps during both PTL and TDG, my goal was not just to wander around in beautiful places. I wanted to venture outside of my comfort zone, to the spaces where my heart rate spikes and my blood runs cold, to prove to myself I am capable of becoming the mountain traveler I want to be. I achieved this occasionally, although the teetering and vertigo and weird foot placements proved I still don't have a solid grasp on my own proprioception, and may never. By Friday morning, my legs were cut and bruised from mistakes made in relatively benign places, my quads and calves were sore from endlessly steep climbs and descents, and my mood and confidence were all but shattered. I headed out to Ollomont to see Beat at the final life base, and my hands were quaking for most of the drive. Great, now I'm apparently terrified of driving, too. I do love the Aosta Valley, but at this point, I couldn't wait to go home.

It was pissing rain and temperatures were in the low 40s. A forecast promising drier conditions did not deliver, and Beat arrived in Ollomont drenched and freezing. He'd already slept at one of the rifugios overnight, so he took a short nap. Meanwhile, I drank three cups of coffee while sitting on the wet plastic chairs of an espresso stand (I found the first Italian barista willing to make me an "Americano," and I was so happy.) By the time Beat set out again, I was fully soaked and shivering myself. My options for warming myself were getting back in the car and driving back to Courmayuer, or hiking. So I laced up my now-mostly-shredded Hokas and headed up the 40-percent muddy grade that passes for a trail in these parts.

The TDG climb was a messy slog, and I passed time by scrolling through the screen on my GPS, looking for possible alternative routes. The map showed a trail traversing around the far side of this mountain, eventually linking to another trail that linked to the opposite side of Col Champillon. This trail was marked in blue, which I already knew was better interpreted as a "route" than a "trail." Still, it could make for an intriguing loop. I followed the mystery trail for all of a quarter mile before faint imprints in the grass faded completely, and then it was a matter of tracing meandering cattle tracks as the slope became muddier and steeper.

Of course I wanted to turn around, but curiosity drove me forward. By the time I broke out of the forest, I was vaguely following my GPS track along increasingly steep grassy slopes that were flanked by sheer cliffs. It was still raining, and the grass was wet and barely clinging to the oozing mud that coated the hillside. Each step was incredibly unnerving, as I edged the shredded sole of my Hokas into the mud, drove in both poles and gritted my teeth at the prospect of slipping. If this had been a snow slope, there's no way I would have traversed it, and instinct told me the grass was just as slippery and the possibility of sliding hundreds of feet to my death just as likely. Still, I wasn't convinced that the objective danger was as bad as I perceived. Mostly I continued forward because I was more scared of turning around.

Eventually, after careful analysis of my GPS screen and stubborn adherence to the invisible "route," I connected with a faint actual trail that became more defined as I neared the col. The above photo is the only one I took during this section, long after I'd connected with the good trail. Imagine those slopes with no flat platform on which to rest your feet. Brrr.

As I topped out on Col Champillon, the rain tapered off and the clouds began to break, revealing the first hints of sunshine I'd seen in days. I sat on the pass watching TDG runners go by while glancing over my shoulder at the intimidating ridgeline of Crou de Bleintse. After the adrenaline drain of the wet grassy traverse, I'm not sure what prompted this thought, but there it was — "I bet I can climb that."

Yes, it was awful. Fog continued to stream over the ridge as I skittered up loose rubble and wet-concrete-like mud. Patches of snow and ice still dotted the rocks, and the low visibility ensured I couldn't determine good lines beyond my immediate surroundings. Of course, just when you think you've entered a place that no one in there right mind would ever venture in the Alps, you come to a sign. This one translates to "Prohibition of hunting partridge." Huh?

This scrambly section was better than the rubble. Thick fog moved in and clung to the ridge as I neared the peak, which disappointingly eradicated the views. I knew I would have to descent the rubble, and this caused much angst.

The fog only cleared again after I successfully passed the rubbly section. There were a few moments of clinging precipitously to a rock while my feet inched down an oozing chute of certain death, but all in all it wasn't as bad as anticipated.

More clearing, looking toward the village of Saint Rhemy-en-Bosses. I'm still not entirely sure why I crawled up that ridge. I was in a strange mood.

Back to the candy-ass trail. I'm so happy to see you! I won't ever leave you again.

More clearing as I descended the other side on the TDG route.

Rifugio Champillion.

Ah, Italy.

 Beat finished in Courmayeur early the next morning, around 4 a.m. He traveled for much of the last half with an English guy named Stephen, who has a chalet in Chamonix where we stayed on Saturday night. I joked that Beat always finds a buddy for TDG, and several of them have gone on to become good friends. There are reasons why racing is better than wandering around aimlessly in mountains, purposelessly scaring yourself.

Anyway, the rain and fog came back, and I made one more jaunt up to the ridge above Bertoni while Beat napped on Saturday afternoon. It had been an interesting trip, but I really was looking forward to returning to Colorado. Hopefully I can find my way into a few more mountains before the snow flies.