On Monday morning, Beat lined up in downtown Chamonix for his fifth Petite Trotte à Léon. I'm still in disbelief that he's volunteered for five of these, in spite of my best efforts to talk him out of it for the past three. Friends know I am no fan of the PTL, mainly because I believe the safety margins are not acceptable. It's 180 miles with 87,000 feet of climbing, but numbers do little to describe how difficult this race can be. Much of the course is highly technical terrain from a runner's perspective — rooty off-camber singletrack, steep scree, miles of chaotic boulders, slippery grass slopes, loose dirt, exposed ridges, and class-four scrambling. Runners travel at all hours of the night in all weather, self-navigating, with limited support, and the time cut-offs prompt extreme sleep deprivation. I raced 200 kilometers of a PTL course in 2013, and still consider it one of my more traumatic life experiences. Any physical malady I've sustained has nothing on the mental devastation of four days with almost no sleep, constant stress, anxiety, and the fatigue of working at one's cardiovascular limit for 23 hours a day. Before I timed out, I had a psychotic break and lost control off my actions for several minutes, made extremely poor decisions like running through dark road tunnels with no shoulder, and for the next five months I had to wear reading glasses because my vision went blurry. There's a longer story of course, but the result is that I now *hate* PTL, and Beat kinda sorta likes it, or at least can't quit it, so there's an interesting dynamic when we return each year.
Beat and his Belgian teammate, Pieter, at the start in Chamonix. Now that Beat has finished this four times, I trust him to make good decisions, so there's less fretting these days. He and Pieter raced together in 2015 and work well together. The race organization also moved up the start time, and between that and finish time adjustments, they have 15.5 more hours than we were given in 2013. I'm hoping that removes some of that cut-off stress in a race where the finishing rate has been less than 30 percent, and 80 percent of the finishers reach Chamonix within four hours of the final cut-off. This year's course is also harder than any other year, so it may be a wash.
I didn't grab a good spot to watch the start. I still thought this photo was interesting, with the phone screens as the only thing in focus.
In 2014, I tried to make peace with my PTL demons by hiking pieces of the course while Beat raced. This proved to be an enjoyable activity — as it turns out, the PTL course in small doses is beautiful and lots of fun, even if travel remains very slow (yup, even being rested doesn't improve my moving average of 2 mph.) On Monday I linked the first few miles of the 2015 PTL route with a segment from this year so I could hike backward on the course and watch teams pass. The initial climb ascended tight switchbacks beneath a tram, gaining 2,600 feet in 1.6 miles. Then there was a chossy scramble with cables, which didn't surprise me at all, as there's usually a fair amount of that in PTL. It was a fun ascent, but not something I'd like to do after several days of one-hour sleeps with 150 miles on my legs.
Traverse from Planpraz to the ridge. As far as I know this trail was not part of any recent PTL route, which makes sense because it's too enjoyable.
Cute little chamois.
Lac Noir d'en Haut.
This guy wanted to pose.
Working my way down from Col de la Gliere on the cables.
Shortly after that, I encountered the leading PTL team — two Swiss guys. The first guy became excited about the Tecnica buff I was wearing and began chattering in French about the Tor des Geants. It's so embarrassing that I don't speak another language. Yet I haven't taken initiative to learn one.
From there the PTL course veered straight down Combe Lachenal on this talus slope that was steeper than the photograph portrays.
I decided I didn't want to do that, so I took the long way around on a nice trail.
These guys seemed pretty sick of the scree as well. This was the third PTL team.
They got up again quickly, though.
Down in the forest I crossed paths with Beat and Pieter, looking pretty good after making their way around the glacier moraines of Mont Blanc on the other side of the valley. After my 13-mile hike with 5,600 feet of climbing, I could almost understand again this strange pull PTL seems to have on a select few crazies who try it more than once. But tonight I received this text message from Beat, referring to the talus slope I skipped and the traverse around Lac Cornu:
"Brutal 40K. The scree sucked and the descent was a mess too. Food and beer and we'll push on. 37th team at the moment. Too fast."
I'm spending Aug. 20 in that sensory deprivation portal that is trans-Atlantic travel. It's half past noon here at the Munich airport, so I think it's my birthday in most places in the world. Nothing like sleep deprivation and lots of coffee to spur a ruminative blog post.
I feel like the universe came down a little hard this year after the hubris of last year's birthday post, where I declared that everything was only getting better with age. 36 hasn't exactly been my year of great health, and yet there's still no hard evidence that my relatively minor issues are age-related or even lifestyle-related. Sometimes people's allergies worsen and they develop asthma in their mid-30s. Sometimes people take several wrist-damaging falls on their snowboard as a teenager, and 17 years later finally incur that last damaging hit that leads to debilitating carpal tunnel syndrome. These things happen. It doesn't necessarily mean I have one foot in the grave.
These health issues did lend some valuable perspective. With my breathing problems, I occasionally feel like a 70-year-old smoker, so now I value good days so much more than I did before. Earlier today ... er yesterday ... right before we drove to the airport, Beat and I did a quick run up the west ridge of Bear Peak. It can be a very short route from our closest trail access — fewer than three miles round trip — but with a segment that gains nearly 700 feet in 0.3 miles, it's a great test of fitness. On Friday morning, the air was cool, misty, and almost autumn-like. I was taking it easy — my heart rate was moderate, breathing steady and relaxed, no gasping. We spent a few minutes at the top gazing over the fog-shrouded prairie. This easy effort turned out to be my PR on this segment that I've run more than a dozen times — sometimes breathing so hard that I became dizzy and had to sit down. Good results on runs or rides no longer seem to indicate how hard I'm working, but rather how well I'm processing oxygen on that particular day. Still, good days are now outnumbering the bad, and I feel more confident every day that my treatments are working (or at least providing an effective placebo effect.)
Because of recent asthma malaise, I've failed to fully acknowledge just how thrilled I am with the results of the carpal tunnel surgery I had in June. I think most people don't realize that carpal tunnel syndrome can be a disabling injury when it becomes severe enough, and my case went from zero to severe literally overnight. I had CTS for all of three months, and during that time I lost most practical use of my right hand. I also developed constant low-level throbbing pain that occasionally escalated to electric shocks. Now that the pain is gone, it's interesting to look back on those three months and realize how much it impacted my daily life. A lot of people live with chronic pain, and I always wondered how they could possibly cope. I know CTS doesn't come close to the worst or even typical level of chronic pain, but it did expand my perspective on living with pain. It's surprisingly easy to absorb it into day-to-day life, until you don't even notice how it affects your mood and daily decisions. No doubt I was developing into a less enthusiastic and more surly person until pain was rather quickly whisked away. I complained during recovery because it wasn't instantaneous, but it was fast enough that I noticed the difference. Now, just two months later, I'm pain-free and back to driving, hand-writing, normal typing, riding my bike, and scrambling class-five rock slabs. I owe it all to CTS surgery. Yay modern medicine.
It also was interesting to quit cycling for four months — my longest break since I a knee injury forced me off a bike for three months in 2007. Cycling is most definitely my "flow" mechanism, and losing that while uprooting everything to move to Colorado was more upsetting than I care to admit. Returning to cycling amid these recent breathing troubles and the stress that causes has been even more disappointing. I find myself avoiding cycling just to avoid the stress. It will be interesting to see where this relationship falls after another month of no cycling, as I'm unlikely to gain access to a bike in Europe.
And now I've spent all these words blathering about my health again, when I meant to write about the two major things that actually happened to me this year — moving to Colorado with Beat, and fulfilling a long-time dream of riding a bike to Nome on the Iditarod Trail. The seeds for this dream sprouted more than a decade ago, and occupied more space in my head than I care to admit. But it seemed impossible then, it seemed impossible every year since, and it seemed the most impossible when I stood at the starting line on Knik Lake. I'd just had too many setbacks in preparation, my training seemed inadequate, I had asthma concerns then, and the crash that left my hand mostly immobilized happened on the first day. That fact that Nome was so impossible, and happened anyway, became a magical experience. The incredible memories from the Iditarod balance out anything negative that happened this year, and then some.
And of course there's Colorado. I'm excited to be here (or there, I suppose, as I'm in Munich right now.) I still dream about returning to Alaska, and I'm not sure that desire will ever go away. But Beat and I are happy to be anchored in Boulder, where we find the best of most worlds — a beautiful place to reside, people who share our values and passions, private space, trail access out our front door, a 25-minute but nicely scenic commute to town, access to good health care, desirable and lucrative work for Beat, mountains and more mountains. I suspect the climate and possibly altitude of Colorado has contributed heavily to my asthma woes, but I'm still optimistic there's a way around all of this. Beat says he doesn't miss the Bay Area at all. I do, just a little, if I'm being honest. We made some great memories there. I miss the trail-running community, and friends, and the redwoods. And I miss Montebello Road — my go-to road bike climb. I want to return to California in November for the 100 Miles of Nowhere. Beat thinks I should substitute Flagstaff Road. But he doesn't understand. It's not the same.
My work is going well. I contract for an Alaska newspaper publisher who recently acquired the Homer Tribune — the weekly newspaper where I worked in 2005-2006. It's a little to surreal to return to the Tribune after a decade, still working with two people I worked with back then, and most everything about it is pretty much the same. Community news is a passion of mine. I believe it's vitally important, even though the tough economics of producing newspapers pushed me out of the business and then out of Alaska. This publisher has made it work, and I'm honored to play a small part. It keeps me connected to community news and connected to Alaska. Someday I will visit Barrow, and Dillingham, and Unalaska ... since I've been editing and sometimes writing about these places for three years now.
And, speaking of the Homer Tribune, the book I wrote about Homer is doing reasonably well. Between Kindle sales, paperback sales, and the Amazon lending library, I've distributed the equivalent of nearly 5,000 copies of "Becoming Frozen" since its Aug. 17, 2015, release. This is the first time I enrolled in Amazon's lending library, and I'm impressed with the program — basically, readers pay a flat rate and authors are paid a small amount for every page read. So it's low-risk for readers, and authors only get paid if people actually read their work. No tricky marketing schemes or $25 hardback duds here. It's the great democratization of the book publishing industry. Yeah, it's probably a good deal for Amazon as well. I still think everybody wins.
I like the idea of aiming to produce a book every year to increase this baseline, which is a bit like having a salmon wheel picking up fish for you when you're not even working. I have a few more ideas for autobiographical projects that may be entertaining enough to snag page reads in the lending library. It's clear I enjoy working in autobiography — not because I think my life is so uniquely interesting or worthy of intensive documentation (although I thrive on intensive documentation all the same), but because as a writer I aim to depict authentic experience. Some writers do this well through fiction, but it's much harder, and that's one of the reasons I mainly read nonfiction. So far, my ventures into fiction have been lackluster, and my efforts with biographical nonfiction have been somewhat frustrating (the book I co-wrote with Tim Hewitt was a great experience. I am having more issues with the Ann Trason project, which I don't really want to delve into right now.) I'm sure I'll branch out eventually, but right now I still have a few more stories to tell.
So, finally, the next book ... it's close to done. My editor has most of the copy and I'm planning on an Oct. 1 release. Here's the working cover:
This book is the about my March 2016 ride across Alaska, and all of those setbacks leading up to it. Thematically, it's a perfect sequel to "Be Brave, Be Strong." I've always wanted to develop a photo book, and I'm finally doing it with this one. It's a full ~70,000-word narrative with more than 200 illustrating photos. Such an endeavor is not super-cheap to produce, but I'm planning to sell the full-color signed paperback for $29.95 directly through my store. This will likely be a limited release, and the retail/Kindle version will come a bit later. If you are interested in pre-ordering the photo version, there's more information at this link: http://www.arcticglasspress.net/agp/?p=216
So that's my long-winded, jet-lagged birthday update. I'm really looking forward to 37, and if all goes well, more of this:
Recently I had an enlightening e-mail conversation with another cyclist about self-defining tenets and the unsettling experience of losing these pieces of our identities. People who identify as athletes are endlessly vulnerable to health setbacks, injuries, changes in circumstance, and aging — while clinging to the belief that "there are no limits," "you can do anything you set your mind to," "you just have to work for it."
Reconciliation of desire and reality seems to be the key — of course there are limits, but our experiences are beautiful regardless. Over the years, I've observed this process in friends and acquaintances. There was always some hubris in believing it wouldn't happen to me, or if it did, I'd be fine because I was already secure in my belief that there's so much more to life than scaling mountains and riding bikes. But now I'm in a summer of discontent, losing fitness in spite of my best efforts, avoiding mountains because I've lost so much faith in my abilities, and imagining what life might actually look like on the other side.
It's interesting to consider the notion of "letting go," even if I haven't arrived there yet. People around me still insist "you'll get it back," and for the most part I still believe this, too. My recent bout with carpal tunnel syndrome provided its own perspective — I was rapidly losing function in my right hand, I was constantly in pain, and it felt like a permanent condition. If it wasn't for surgery, it likely would have been a permanent condition. Instead, it was a surprisingly simple fix, and two months later, my hand is almost back to a hundred percent — or, at least it would be if I was more diligent about strengthening exercises. Maybe in two months more time, I'll be breathing just fine, I'll spend long days outdoors while feeling great the whole time, fire will again rage where right now there are only fumes, and I'll wonder why I ever lost the faith.
For now, I still have good days and bad. The good days are starting to outweigh the bad. On Friday I embarked on an incredible bike ride — incredible only because it was the first ride since winter where I finally felt reasonably strong, didn't crash, didn't wheeze, didn't stop to take puffs from my inhaler, and propelled myself through forty miles of interesting scenery. I pedaled past beautiful rock formations on Magnolia, side-eyed strange characters in Nederland, stole glimpses of big mountains on the Peak-to-Peak Highway, breathed crisp air on the Switzerland Trail, and tucked into a screaming descent toward the plains on Sugarloaf Road. It was a satisfying ride, and reminded me that my identity isn't tied up in being an athlete. It's tied up in loving the outdoors. My vision of the "other side" doesn't contain imagery of working out in gyms and indoor activity. Instead, I imagine painting landscapes and going for walks — if necessary, finding less taxing ways to enjoy the outside world. Still, if I can engage my body in exhilarating activity while moving through the world, that would pretty much be having it all.
Of course, on Saturday I went for a ninety-minute run that went so badly, Beat had to come pick me up in the car before I made it home. This gasping dizziness I occasionally experience is exactly why I'm not willing to take any big chances right now — even hiking up a fourteener seems risky. So when our friend Chris Plesko invited us on a scrambling excursion in the Flatirons on Sunday morning, I dug for any excuse to get out of it. "My hand is still too weak." "What if I get dizzy on a wall?" These were legitimate concerns, but ultimately I decided to join.
Chris guided us on a short practice climb on the First Flatiron, and then we hiked over the the Second Flatiron for a classic route called "The Freeway." This 600-foot slab ascent is rated 5.0, and thus was one of my first forays into fifth-class terrain — but it's been a long time since my initial top-rope outings in Little Cottonwood Canyon back in 2002. What's beautiful about this route is that in addition to confidence-inspiring natural features, there are plenty of exits. It's a great route for beginners, which Beat and I undoubtedly are. We're both tentative on exposed terrain and I'm prone to vertigo, but Chris was a helpful and patient guide.
Near the summit, we arrived at a needle that required a four-foot jump onto a forty-five-degree slab. I couldn't bring myself to make the leap, so Beat and Chris offered their shoulders so I could lower myself down. In the process of putting all of my weight on a few curled fingers, my right hand cramped up badly and never recovered. There was one more pitch after the jump that was the steepest pitch of the climb, and I was reeling with muscle cramps in my hand and a beginner's unwillingness to trust friction to hold my feet. Chris offered a lot of support and I'm grateful for his guidance. This was a solid venture out of my comfort zone, and it was very satisfying to reach the top. Scrambling "The Freeway" and riding from home to the Switzerland Trail feel like big victories near the end of a rather disappointing summer.
Maybe I'll get it back, but even if I don't, life is still awesome.