Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The definition of insanity

I honestly don't know why I keep coming back here. There's invisible Velcro under my tires, just like there was in 2015, and I don't understand why my legs are burning. I'm just pedaling — as slowly as possible, really — while wispy clouds strain to capture fading light. The sun set and we're just getting started. I'm already lost in memories. I want to find new experiences, but I keep coming back here. It's inevitable that I'll relive the past. Island Park, Idaho — this is the place where I crumbled in this same 200-mile bike race last year. Two years ago, the Warm River gorge is where I stopped during the Tour Divide, crawled into a clammy sleeping bag, and alternately sobbed and coughed because I'd never felt so weak or hopeless. And yet I here I am. I keep coming back.

The pack fades into the distance and I continue spinning slowly, trying to ignore the tightness I already feel in my chest. This is how it is. This is who I am. I'm going to work with it, use it to find the same joy and awe I've always found on life's outer limit. Night is descending and the temperature follows. It was 2 degrees at the start; five miles later, it's already down to 5 below. I stop to put a fleece jacket on. My water valve is already frozen. Golden-tinted plumes of steam rise from Henry's Fork, billowing around a flock of geese. "Why don't they leave for the winter? I suppose water is warmer than air."

The course winds through Herriman State Park. I burn a few matches propelling myself up steep singletrack. My lungs burn as a mash the pedals. Hard surges are something I promised myself I wouldn't do, but I'm feeling good, and I am at the back of the race, so I can't dawdle too much.

Miles roll by, the Velcro snow becomes stickier, and the night more menacing. After two hours under my armpit, the water valve final opens. I greedily suck water and roll deep-frozen cinnamon bears on my tongue. It's minus 16, then minus 19. Around mile 25 I catch up to Beat, who is miserable in his vapor barrier shirt. He can't tell whether he's wet or cold, and can't strip in these temperatures. "It's minus 24 now," I announce. My feet and hands are toasty, but I can hear a quiet gurgle in my breaths. I know that's the thing that's really not good.

We reach the spur to Mesa Falls, dropping steeply into a gorge for no good reason, but it's part of the race. We walk gingerly along an icy overlook and glance across the canyon. Last year the night was overcast and I couldn't see anything at all, but this year the moon is out. Sheer cliffs are bathed in sliver light. "It's really beautiful," I say to Beat, and we stand a few seconds longer until shivering sets in. This isn't weather for standing still.

The long climb begins, and I'm hunched beside my bike, barely putting one foot in front of the other up impossibly steep slopes. I start coughing and spit up a gob of thick gunk. This is the point I know has no return. I can't recover from this. Perhaps it was inevitable, but there's always hope that I'll beat it. "This is just like the Tour Divide," I think. "Only different."

The night flickers and fades, muted by reduced awareness that I think of as "oxygen deprivation." I try to remind myself to eat, trail mix and cinnamon bears that I have to hold in my mouth for at least five minutes before they're malleable enough the chew. Beat sticks with me even though I'm moving slowly, perhaps too slowly to stay warm, but my head is fuzzy and it's the best I can do. We think the temperature will warm as we climb, but it doesn't feel that way. Finally I check the thermometer, and it's minus 30. Then minus 34. Minus 37. Beat has told me that when it's minus 40, there's always a devil lurking in the shadows. I'm warm but I can sense the devil, stalking through the trees, waiting for that single mistake to strike.

We pedal and walk, mostly walk, because that's all I can manage on even slight inclines. Beat prefers walking. Moonlight fades, and the sky is stars upon stars. The air seems colder. A stiff breeze pushes against us; on bare skin it feels like fire. The windchill is the coldest I've ever felt, but I don't dare check the thermometer. The devil tells me the temperature will just keep dropping, and I don't want to think about that. I can't fish the water hose out of my jacket, so I give up on drinking. I keep eating, as though food could somehow give me the energy I desperately need. I'm coughing. My breathing sounds horrible inside my face mask. It's obstructing the air, so I pull it down. "Nose frostbite isn't really that bad."

There are many quiet hours when I'm certain light will appear on the horizon. It never does. I don't think about the race or the miles ahead, only the need to keep moving, keep breathing. The night is long and expansive, the forest is drenched in frost, the snow is glistening with starlight, and it really is beautiful. It is so beautiful. How could I ever describe it? I cannot. I am oxygen- and sleep-deprived, addled, and know on an intellectual level that this intense beauty exists only in my imagination. But I am happy to be here. Through it all, this is what I came for.

Dawn appears. Beat has drifted ahead. It's still minus 32. Even as orange light dusts the tips of trees, it doesn't warm up. I've already put on my big coat because I wanted to feel toasty, but hints of lucidity return and I regret that I didn't preserve more of a margin for error. I'm coughing more, and in daylight I can see yellow mucous in the snow. I know it won't get better. I know I'll keep moving more slowly, struggling and possibly becoming more sick until time cutoffs force what is now an inevitable DNF. I know I have to stop. This is no sadness or relief in this, just stoic acknowledgement. I'm not really an endurance athlete anymore. I can keep pushing it and I'll probably keep having the same results, unless something changes. But there's no reason I can't keep hoping for change.

The descent is long and I feel like I have to work hard to move forward, even here. Beat waits for me at the bottom. We've both made peace with the fact we're going to stop at mile 80, again. The night was harsh, and most of the field of 25 or so either quit at this point or turned around earlier because of cold concerns or equipment failures. A handful pressed on into temperatures that swung 60 degrees into the low 20s, followed by a stowstorm. Of those, only one man finished. The Fat Pursuit is indeed a hard race, even without Arctic temperatures. Although I may have gone into it with a defeatist attitude, I really did want to finish, to prove to myself I can still be strong, I can still breathe fire, I can still seek intense beauty. But what is it they say about the definition of insanity?

I've said this before, but I really should do some soul-searching about my plans for this year. Regardless of what I decide, I'm not going to sign up for the Fat Pursuit in 2018. Hold me to that. If I want things to change, I need to change. 

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Out of shape and maybe okay with it

 Today I returned for allergy shots after a much-enjoyed two-week break while the clinic was closed. Before administering the shots, the nurses measure my peak expiratory flow rate (basically measuring how well I breathe out, a common way to monitor asthma.) Since I started the immunotherapy treatments, this number has been on a small but steady decline. The normal rate for a woman my age and height is about 430. The last time I went in for shots, my peak flow registered 290 — which is pretty much off-the-charts low. The nurse made me keep trying until I boosted it to 330, because if the number is too far below my norm, I can't get shots. I didn't tell her how light-headed I was feeling.

Today, however, I registered 410 on the first puff. This time, the nurse urged me to try a few more times to ensure it was a correct reading. Since my normal is in the low 300s, a 400 reading may lead to registering too low for shots the next time around. "If they ask, tell them you were having a good lung day," she said.

A good lung day. Why can't all the days be good lung days? Who knows whether this good lung day was a result of my allergy shot vacation, or something else entirely. (I've been having an interesting discussion with a blog reader about a chronic condition caused by c. pneumoniae.) Either way, my lung capacity is fairly low most of the time, and that may just be the way it is. It effectively means I'm out of shape, except for my muscles and joints are strong. So I can pedal or walk all day and not become tired, but ask me to pedal or run *relatively* fast, and I'll falter immediately.

In the afternoon, Beat and I set out for one last loaded bike test, including the task that is never fun — firing up the stove when it's snowing and windy and 5 degrees. Tomorrow I will drive out Idaho for the 200-mile Fat Pursuit, a snow bike race that I'm fairly certain I'm not fast enough to finish. For a winter race, its cutoffs are relatively stout. I've been on the course before, so I have a general idea of what conditions might be like, and an discouraging but more realistic understanding of my abilities. I'm not sure why I signed up for the Fat Pursuit or why I'm still clinging to this endurance racing thing ... but here I am.

The aspects of endurance racing I've always loved are the mastery of mind over matter, and the beautiful intensity one can experience when challenging the impossible. I suppose that hasn't changed. I remind myself that I can still do my best, still experience all the awe and wonder, and still have a great adventure — without fixating on the end result. I can muddle around in the snowy woods, listen to ice crystals chime in sub-zero air, take a nap under the stars, walk my bike for a while if I make it all the way to Sunday when 8-12 inches of snow is predicted — and if that's not enough to finish the race, well, I'll walk my bike to the highway and spin happily back to Island Park. I'm going to do the best I can, as slow as that may be. I'm not going to try to force it, like I did last year — with disastrous results.

So, I'm filled with dread, but excited as well. The Fat Pursuit starts Friday evening and will have live tracking here:

At times like these, I'm reminded of scenes from the TV show "Arrested Development."

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 in numbers

Panorama from the top of Mount Olympus in November, by Raj Nayar
At the end of the December I like to crunch my stats from Strava, and see how far the year took me. Even before the end of 2015, I knew I wouldn't come close to eclipsing last year's numbers — 5,000 miles of riding, 1,700 miles of running, 850,000 feet of climbing, and 41 days of moving time. And it's true, I didn't come close — to any number but the moving time. In 2016, I *still* spent nearly 41 days on the move despite logging a paltry 2,747 miles of riding, 1,491 miles of running, and 638,701 feet climbing.

Wow. I knew I'd become slower, but I really had no idea.

Of course, Strava can't take into account sheer effort — moving through snow, battling gale-force winds, or high altitudes. Strava made a mockery of my *hardest day on a bike ever* by estimating a power output of 5 watts and energy burn of 217 calories — because it took me nearly 15 hours to ride 33 flat miles (into a 30-40 mph headwind atop fragile snow crust of a frozen Norton Sound.) Strava doesn't know how tough it is to pedal my studded-tire fat bike up these relentless Colorado grades. Strava doesn't care. 

But also, numbers don't lie. I was surprised to see such a high moving time when I wasn't actively training for most of the months of 2016, and only had one big race, which doesn't look all that impressive on paper — a least relative to the effort it took to cover that distance (952.4 miles in 17.2 days.) 

I spent four months off my bike between March and July, thanks to carpal tunnel syndrome. I admit to being disappointed my running total wasn't higher because of this, but I was admittedly pretty lazy during the summer (it's all relative I suppose.) This year, I took the time to break the stats down by month. I know these numbers aren't interesting to anyone but me. I mainly make this post to have it on record.


118.6 miles run, 34,165 feet of climbing
238.4 miles ride, 19,632 feet of climbing


41.9 miles run, 6,270 feet of climbing
660.8 miles ride, 67,416 feet of climbing


21.9 miles run 1,903 feet of climbing
923.3 miles ride, 18,254 feet of climbing


180.9 miles run, 36,959 feet of climbing
0 miles ride


189.7 miles run, 46,198 feet of climbing
0 miles ride


174.7 miles run, 42,122 feet of climbing
0 miles ride


162.5 miles run, 43,738  feet of climbing
79.9 miles ride, 13,783 feet of climbing


145.9 miles run 41,749 feet of climbing
115.9 miles ride 14,937 feet of climbing


142.5 miles run 42,983 feet of climbing
112.1 miles ride 16,142 feet of climbing


149 miles run, 40,433 feet of climbing
123.3 miles ride, 21,499 feet of climbing


99.5 miles run 30,095  feet of climbing
196.4 miles ride, 30,991 feet of climbing


62.3 miles run, 14,672 feet of climbing
297.4 miles ride, 35,703 feet of climbing


Running: 393:36, 1,491 miles, 387,920 feet climbing
Cycling: 576:09, 2,747.5 miles, 250,781 feet climbing

Cumulative distance: 4,238.5 miles
Total moving time: 969 hours and 45 minutes (40.4 days)
Cumulative climbing: 638,701 feet