Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Another round in Chamonix

Beat and I arrived in France on Sunday night for our annual sojourn (of pain) in the Alps. Beat has his nearly-back-to-back-200-mile races that he can't quite pry himself away from, and so we're back in Chamonix for the 2015 Petite Trotte à Léon. 

Friends know I have no love for PTL, which pits a hundred teams on a high-mountain course that combines difficult terrain, long distances, often tricky navigation, and a time limit that ensures extreme sleep deprivation. Basically, it's light mountaineering with compromised strength under moderate sedation. Of all the things Beat does that cause me to fret, PTL is the most unnerving. Every year, the organization switches up the course to make it even harder, which only ensures it's more dangerous. Oh, but it's okay, because slipping is "forbidden." 

This year, Beat is racing with Pieter Schaaps, a young Belgian that he met last year at the Tor des Geants. The race started under heavy rain and high winds on Monday evening, where they launched straight from Chamonix up the local vertical kilometer course, climbed that vertical kilometer, and then dropped straight back down to a point that normally is only five flat kilometers from Chamonix along a nice river trail. This is PTL being nice, because at least the runners were on a trail while climbing and then descending 3,000 feet elevation in five miles.

Beat called me last night after about 28 hours in the race, just as he and Pieter were leaving a refuge. They hadn't slept yet, and Beat was on edge because they were running uncomfortably close to the cutoffs, even though they were near the front of the pack — 16th position out of just over a hundred teams that started. At least 30 teams have dropped. Beat expected time controls or attrition would get most of them unless the organization implemented some alternatives to the course, which he said has become "impossibly hard."

"They basically just linked up 300 kilometers of the 'best' (so, the worst) of PTL, without actually considering whether anyone can actually finish in 142 hours," he said. Even with "just" 26,000 meters of climbing, it's the technical difficulty that makes this event so slow. Because Beat is who he is, he's hanging on with all of his determination. Physically, both Pieter and Beat are fine beyond the predictable bad feet and sore legs. I'll be glad when it's over, whenever it's over. I sort of feel like that spouse at home while her husband gets wasted at a bar — livid at the bartender for serving him alcohol, but aware that the fault lies with the spouse who just can't get enough.

So what am I up to? Alpine touristing at its best. My parents are in town this week as well. They were in Switzerland all of last week, but arranged their Europe vacation to experience the spectacle of UTMB week in Chamonix (and hang out with me.) On Tuesday we did the best-of sightseeing with an all-day tram pass.

The remnant clouds from the previous night's downpour were just clearing at Brevent.

Of course we took the gondola to Aiguille du Midi. Visiting this high-mountain station just below Mont Blanc is the pinnacle of Alpine tourism, but you really have to do it, at least once.

I mean, you really do.

Glaciers tumbling off Mont Blanc.

Views of the Chamonix valley 9,000 feet below.

Next we took the train to Mere de Glace. It's a beautiful valley, and yet another unsettling reminder of just how quickly the ice of the world is melting away. To reach the glacier, we had to descend at least 300 vertical feet below the noted demarcation line of the glacier's level in 1985. Just thirty years ago. Even as recently as five years ago, the surface was 50 feet higher.

We toured the man-made ice caves, which were very cool (in both senses, as the weather here has become quite hot since the rain cleared out.)

Today Dad and I hiked from town to La Flegere, which I always remember as this flat and short hike by Chamonix standards, but it still climbs 3,000 feet over four miles of root-choked trails.

Also, this happened. UTMB starts Friday afternoon. I've been saying all summer that I wasn't going to race this event that I signed up for in December — before I decided to ride the Tour Divide, and well before I dropped out of that race after 1,700 miles with severe bronchitis and far too few running miles on my legs — but all the excitement has gotten the better of me. I have a strategy for my lungs, and some emotional acceptance of a number of disappointing outcomes, but I'm not going to pretend this is a good idea. Most of my best ideas aren't.

Friday, August 21, 2015

36

While looking for a photo for this post, I realized I hadn't taken any photos of my outdoor excursions (all runs) in a couple of weeks, and I haven't posted a California picture on my blog since May. How far my blog has fallen from its original intent (a day-to-day journal and cycling log.) This photo is from July, taken during one of Beat's favorite running routes — a 16-mile grinder in Portolla Redwoods State Park to visit a 1,200-year-old redwood called "Old Tree." Seems an apt image for a birthday post.

My running over past few weeks has been a series of steady and deliberate efforts to get my "wind" back, through whatever biological mechanisms aid in this process. What it's felt like is a slow strengthening, from the early days of July with tight constrictions in my bronchi and a weak heart (resting at 90 bpm but too taxed at 130 bpm) to clearer breathing and a strong heart. (I did seek out medical tests during this process. Lung X-Rays were clear, and heart checked out fine. Peak expiratory flow was well below normal — which could be a sign of chronic asthma, although my doctor was dismissive of this, and I haven't been inclined to seek out further tests for asthma as my breathing continues to improve.)

My resting heart rate dropped back down to 60 bpm, I'm back to running comfortably at 160 bpm, but I still don't have the oomph for high intensity. I still feel breathing constrictions when I venture into zone 4. I haven't attempted a max effort. The jury's out about whether running is aiding in the recovery process, but it felt like it has — my chest really does feel more "open" after runs. I think at worst it had a neutral effect. I only had one asthma attack since the Tour Divide, during a mountain bike ride in mid-July.

The runs have been really enjoyable, although summer is just not my season. I do not get excited about venturing outdoors when temperatures are in the 90s or higher, and come up with plenty of excuses for rest days (so believe me, I mostly ran when it felt great and I was enjoying myself. There was no forced running on my agenda.)

Last weekend saw record highs and an atmosphere choked with smoke from wildfires in Northern California. Beat wanted to squeeze in one last long run before we head to Europe this weekend, but even our go-to "cool" escapes — Big Basin and Santa Cruz — registered a temperature of 101 degrees. Somehow, while avoiding going outside all day on Saturday, we decided to embark on on a night run in Henry Coe State Park. These inland hills are typically the hottest zone in the Bay Area — temperatures in the 90s in November are not out of the question. So why, oh why, oh why? Well, it's also the only trail system nearby where it's legal to be out after dark. Bah, California.

Thank goodness temperatures were only in the high 80s as we launched up the steep, dusty hill at 9 p.m. Fist-sized tarantulas skittered across the trail — over the course of the run, we counted at least 25 — and we also shared the night with a curious fox, mice, deer, and other creepy unidentified glowing eyes. The 89,000-acre state park is just remote enough to catch only slivers of city light from the highest ridges, and moonlight cast the grassy hillsides in silver and indigo hues. Coe is a former ranch, and occasionally we'd pass a creepy abandoned building or piles of twisted and rusting metal. It had a thrilling "haunted old Coe" factor that kept me invigorated even as I shed buckets of sweat over relentlessly steep, loose terrain for three and a half hours. We returned to the car well after midnight, absolutely saturated in sweat.

Ten years, and still seeking the frosty sides of life.
This week was my 36th birthday. As I just released "Becoming Frozen" — a memoir about the year I was 26 years old — I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about what's changed in 10 years. My recent bout with respiratory illness — which at times made me feel 106 — also led to reflection on the fragility of health and the physical deterioration of age. But I realized that there are several ways in which I'm stronger at 36 than I was at 26.

1. My knees are better than they were at 26. Of course I don't know the precise condition of the tissues in my joints, but I do know my knees feel a lot better than they did for most of my 20s. During a cross-country bicycle tour in 2003, I developed patellar pain in my right knee that persisted for years. I remember several of my friends were training for marathons in 2004, and I lamented that I could never aspire to be a runner, because I had "bad knees." The pain was manageable but more prevalent when I started endurance cycling in 2005. During the 2007 Susitna 100, I twisted my knee painfully near the start of the race and still finished, which put the nail in a massive overuse injury that was diagnosed as grade 3 chondromalacia. My doctor in Juneau, who was an Ironman triathlete and sympathetic to the whole endurance cause, said I'd probably battle osteoarthritis for the rest of my life. A physical therapist said my vastus medialis quad muscles were extremely underdeveloped (weird for a cyclist, right?) and suggested running to build muscle strength and bone density to support the joint. I started hiking more frequently that year, but the pain really started to subside after 2010 ... when I took up running.

2. I really do have an iron butt these days, evidenced by making it through 1,700 miles of the Tour Divide in 14 days with no chamois and my same old Terry Butterfly saddle, and no issues.

3. My feet are so much tougher than they used to be. Thank you, running.

4. My co-workers in Idaho Falls gave me the flattering nickname "Gimpy McStiff" because I'd always come back from weekend adventures completely hobbled. Actually training on a regular basis — even for recreational activities — really helps reduce the Monday rigor mortis.

5. My endurance continues to improve. My struggles in recent years have been linked mainly to injuries — specifically blunt force injuries, caused by falls — and illnesses. When everything goes right, even in an extremely taxing effort like sled-dragging 350 miles of the Iditarod Trail in seven days — I'm able to bounce back to normal quickly, in a matter of days.

6. I've got a better handle on my sleep, although I still have occasional bouts of insomnia. My sleep patterns were terrible through my early 20s, and became more consistent when I developed a regular outdoor exercise habit.

7. Anxiety is largely gone from my life. I still feel anxious when it's justified — such as clinging to precipitous mountain ledges. But I used to struggle with a more pathological anxiety, and occasional bouts of panic when such a response was not even remotely justified. I was actually a fairly fearful person in my early 20s, and I've never been particularly good at reacting to stressors. Newspaper journalism was a rewarding occupation, but it wasn't always great for my psychological health. And before I became (you guessed it) a regular exerciser, I had no coping mechanisms. This aspect of my personality is a large reason why I started and continue to participate in adventure sports — I extract immense satisfaction and ultimately peace in confronting my fears. Regular outdoor activity has been part of my lifestyle for long enough that I can't even fathom feeling the same disconnected anxiety, but I always wonder whether it would return if I were to lose my ability to stay active.

So there you go. Getting older rocks. Bring on 36.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Becoming Frozen

Today (August 17) my latest book was released. "Becoming Frozen" is my own story about falling in love with Alaska, after a rash decision to follow my then-boyfriend to the North completely changed the trajectory of my life.

The release coincides with the tenth anniversary of that decision, which was set in motion during the week of my 26th birthday. Coincidentally, I was camping in the Wind Rivers in Wyoming when I had my fateful "why not?" moment, and I hadn't been back those mountains since, until last week. It's funny how life continues turning in circles.

This book is one of the accumulating projects that I finally just had to push out the door. I don't blog much about my book projects, which are part of the day-to-day work I do. (People often wonder what I "do." I'm a freelance copy editor, if you weigh my career by the bulk of my paid contracts. Secondarily I'm an author, and book sales bring in my next largest chunk of income. Then I'm a journalist who contributes to newspapers and magazines. Last, I'm a blogger. Thank you for your clicks.)

Books, however, remain my ambition. I had some encouraging success with "Be Brave, Be Strong," and initially felt confidence that I could bulk up my fish wheel with frequent releases and modest sales, similar to other independent authors I admire. It hasn't quite worked out that way, mainly because I find book writing to be frustratingly difficult. Blogs are a breeze. But books ... they tend to take on a personality of their own that isn't always agreeable. I struggled with "Becoming Frozen." I'll admit that right here. It will be interesting to watch how it's received.

Books are also a challenging market. I saw all this potential with the rise of independent publishing, and it has worked out for me to some extent. I've sold more than 20,000 copies of a book that an agent told me she "loved, but there's no market. Nobody reads books about bicycling." I have three other books that have had reasonable sales. Still, it's difficult to convince people to part with their money for what amounts to low-tech entertainment. So much highly entertaining content is available for free. Even I am guilty of buying and reading only a dozen or so new books per year, and spend many more hours reading newspapers, online magazines, and blogs. I think that's what I struggle with the most in my for-profit projects. Why should/would anyone pay for this?

I've also ventured back into the traditional publishing game to pursue a project about Ann Trason. I've already found a couple of interested publishers, but each has a specific idea of what that book should be. Meanwhile, both my and Ann's ideas about the book continue to shift, and I feel like I'm approaching an impasse. In all honesty, I have no personal interest in traditional publishing. The validation of it does nothing for me, the numbers I've yet seen are not inspiring, and the micromanagement is exasperating. And yet for projects like this one, and others I have in mind, it's really they only way to go.

What's funny about writing is, I don't really believe people should pay me for this. I enjoy writing as much if not more than cycling, and I don't expect to receive payment for the cycling I do. But I do need income, to at least a small extent. Also, Beat is waiting for me to create a million-dollar bestseller so we can retire and move back to Alaska. I tell him I'm way too out of touch to formulate such successful content. I write about what I love. It's pretty esoteric. I'm okay with that. It can still fund groceries.

So with all that, I'm introducing "Becoming Frozen." This book is about the year I lived in Homer, Alaska, and has elements of the typical cheechako tale. A series of random events led to my discovery of endurance racing, and there are also tales of my often humorous "couch-to-100-mile-snow-bike-race" training efforts. For each chapter, I took an excerpt from an original blog post and expanded on it. It was funny to read through all the old entries of a blog I still update and think, "Ah, so young." It also had me wondering what became of readers from the days of yore. If you still check in here and remember commenting on "Up in Alaska" back in 2005 or 2006, I'd love to send you a free digital copy of "Becoming Frozen." E-mail me at jillhomer (at) gmail with your old Blogger (or Typepress, or whatever) handle, and whether you prefer a PDF or eBook file. You'd make my day. (Juancho? Doug? Are you still out there?)

For everyone else, your support is greatly appreciated. I plan to offer signed copies, but I've nearly sold out of what I'll have available before early October. I'll post that link then, but for now you can purchase an eBook (with a free app the file can be read on any device) or paperback at Amazon.

Thank you to Tonya Simpson for editing, and David Shaw at Wild Imagination Photography for the cover photo.

And thanks for reading!