Sunday, October 23, 2016

First week of something

It's been one week since I committed to winter training and posting workouts on my blog, and I'm already regretting it. This week was a mixed bag of fantastic and cringeworthy outings, with a return to weight training thrown in. I'm still grappling with the uncertainty of whether I'm healthy enough to train for the Iditarod, and this week was not confidence-inspiring. I'm not throwing in the towel this soon, but I will continue to tread carefully.

Monday: Trail run, 1:19, 5.8 miles, 1,472 feet of climbing. I intended to go for a short ride on Monday, but the afternoon brought winds gusting 40 to 50 miles per hour. One gust was so strong that it nearly knocked me off my feet while I was wheeling the bike outside, so I went back inside and changed into running clothes. The wind stayed fierce, and for most of the run I had a buff pulled over my face amid a swirl of dust clouds. I was even hit in the cheek by a fairly large object, which I didn't see because I was squinting against a 50-mph blast of wind. But I felt great. One of the happier runs I've had in a while.

Tuesday: Trail run, 1:10, 5.4 miles, 895 feet climbing. Beat was working from home and joined my usual one-hour Tuesday run. For all of the amazingness I felt on Monday, my experience was the opposite on Tuesday. By mile four I felt tightness in my chest and throat, which tends to scare me into hyperventilating, and then I was dizzy and had to walk it in. Why? I don't know. There continues to be few patterns in my breathing reactions, and the unpredictability is almost more frustrating than the reaction itself. Long ride, short run, medium hike, windy day, beautiful day, spring, fall, 5,000 feet or 13,000 feet — none of that seems to matter.

Wednesday: Weight lifting at the gym, 0:40. I finally joined a gym after seven months away, in which I didn't miss gym workouts one bit. This first session was mostly about testing my limits. The results were unsurprising — I'm a lot weaker than I was in February. But they're also encouraging, because that means my efforts last winter worked. Wednesday is also the day I go into a clinic for allergy shots. This makes for a strange afternoon. Over the course of three hours I receive 15 injections, and each week the dose increases exponentially. For the second session I endured a 1:1,000 dose, and for the first few hours I felt great — perhaps a response to my suddenly amped up immune system? By the evening I experienced the crash that results in itchiness, congestion, and what I interpret as flu-like weakness for the next ~24 hours.

 Thursday: Mountain bike, 4:13, 40.3 miles, 4,002 feet climbing. I woke up with a headache and flu-like weakness, but still went out in the afternoon for a medium-length bike ride. It should have gone badly, right? It didn't! For inexplicable reasons, again, I felt good and had no issues throughout. I've been exploring different ways to ride from my house to town via trails or Nederland or both. This was more of a dirt and paved road ride, but it included my favorite descent yet, Sugarloaf Road. I love smooth paved descents, and this one screams toward the prairie at what feels like warp speed. It was actually pretty cold on this day — low 40s in Ned, with a dusting of snow in shady spots. I was wearing short-sleeves and shorts, so I froze on the descent. But I secretly (or maybe not so secretly) enjoy this in small doses. Awesome afternoon.

Friday: Weight lifting at the gym, 0:55. I got back into my normal routine of 12 exercises, 12 reps, 3 sets at embarrassingly low weights. I also started out by testing how many pushups I can do before collapsing ... (four), and this time finished with 20 minutes on a wobble board doing various exercises. Will this help improve my balance? I doubt it. I'm pretty pessimistic right now.

 Saturday: Trail run, 4:46, 20.8 miles, 2,301 feet climbing. Boulder is home to a seemingly endless array of group outdoor activities, and since I moved here I've managed to avoid them all. The main reason I've avoided group outings is fear that I'll have some issue and be humiliated in front of all these people. Well, on Saturday I put this fear aside and joined the Boulder Banditos for their group run from Lyons to north Boulder on a series of trails I've never explored. It started out great. We hit the trails in Heil Ranch, the group was relaxed and I was feeling strong. It was a warm day — 83 degrees — but after 90s in the Grand Canyon last weekend, the heat didn't feel too bad. Half of the group stopped at mile 11.5, and several more left at mile 17. The group leader informed the remaining three of us that there were two or three more miles to the cars. I felt as fresh as I did at the start, so I continued.

Thing is, there wasn't actually a trail for two of what turned out to be four more miles. Instead, we schwacked through knee-high grass. Obviously not a problem for most people. But I am confirmed to be highly allergic to grass pollen, which I suspect extends to grass itself. Blades of grass were whipping against my legs and cutting my skin. My usual congestion worsened. After about a mile I started coughing and felt an unnerving tightness in my throat. To alleviate this sensation, I drank sips of water until all of my water was gone, and quickly felt desperately thirsty. We moved up a hill to parallel a fence, stumbling on uneven terrain. My throat became tighter, my coughing worse, and I was desperate to get out of the grass. The fence increased my anxiety, because even though I could see Highway 36, there was no quick escape. All I could think about was this epi-pen I now own, but didn't bring because it's not $%*! allergy season. But my doctor did warn me about increased sensitivity during allergy shots, and now I was going to suffocate out here on this grassy slope less than a mile from a highway.

Maybe it was the allergies and maybe it was anxiety, but I felt my throat close up and I launched into tearful, high-pitched gasping. Wendy, the woman who invited me to the run, sat me down and coached me through using my inhaler, because I was in full panic mode and not functioning well. The inhaler worked and she insisted on walking in with me. I'm very grateful for her help and patience. My nightmare about group runs had reared its ugly head. But if I had been alone in the wilderness and something like this happened, it would have been worse.

Sunday: Rest. I admit, I was despondent on Saturday afternoon. My limbs were quaking, I felt nauseated after rehydrating, and then had to rush off to a party at our neighbors,' where I was already late. The party was fun, but it was tough to meet new neighbors and describe past adventures while quietly thinking, "But I'll never be able to do that again." I'm not trying to be melodramatic, but this is the way it feels at times. Still, I woke up feeling much better on Sunday, and took a rest day anyway because this seemed best.

Total: 13:03, 32 miles run, 40.3 miles ride, 8,670 feet climbing. 

These training logs are about recording what I did and how I felt, so that's what I'll continue to do. I'll continue to tread lightly, and avoid grassy slopes like the poison I think they are. Although it was a discouraging week, I continue to hold onto optimism that I'll find a way to continue doing the things I love. And I know these reports aren't exactly upbeat. Earlier this week, a reader commented on the seeming self-destruction of all of this. I wanted to post the reply here:

"'Overtraining' is a possible diagnosis, but far from certain. I've seen two different specialists about my symptoms, described in depth my activities over the past 10 years, and suggested my own theory that over-taxing my body during the 2015 Tour Divide brought all of this on. Both doctors seem reasonably certain that my symptoms are more likely related to asthma than the nebulous overtraining syndrome.

Adults do occasionally have incidents that ramp up their allergies. The decisions I made during the Tour Divide may have sparked this, but I can't take that back now. There are still a lot of unknowns, of course. But I lack most of the other symptoms of overtraining — adrenal fatigue, injury, appetite changes, insomnia. My EKG, blood work, etc. is all normal. I'm still fine in my day to day life. Even my exercise symptoms come and go. They usually crop up during shorter efforts. I'd pretty much have to quit altogether, or take up non-cardio exercise.

I complain about breathing a lot here, because this is my outdoors/activity/endurance blog. Whatever issue I have is less of an obstruction in my daily life than I may make it seem. I'm going through a difficult round of allergy shots right now specifically so I can potentially be more comfortable and happy when I'm outdoors. I probably wouldn't choose this treatment otherwise.

"Rest for a few months" is an oft-cited solution, just like going gluten-free, dairy-free, drinking green tea every night, etc. There's just no concrete evidence that any of this will actually help. If it's asthma, it won't. Perhaps you can understand why I'm (as of yet) unwilling to make major lifestyle changes on a vague possibility. I'm not ruling out that my outdoor hobbies are all of the problem and quitting is all of the solution. Just explaining why I'm going this route for now."

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Looks like it's the on-season

I'm back at the asthma clinic for weekly allergy shots, with three hours to kill ... always a good time to update the blog. Now that the Grand Canyon trip is over, I've committed to launching my winter training. Over the past few weeks, I've considered whether I should do this at all. Occasionally, I still struggle with relatively meager efforts. It's these times, when I stumble back home feeling beaten after a five-mile run, I think I should just withdraw from the ITI. Let it go. "Listen to my body" and become the couch potato I was clearly meant to be.

In the past, I remember having some level of high-end fitness that would allow me to run full-bore up a steep hill. Now the best I can do is a brisk walk before I become so winded that I begin hyperventilating, and everything goes downhill from there. But if I maintain a moderate pace, I rarely have issues — I can keep it up for ten hours, probably longer. I suppose I take comfort in this. My aim is to be strong and consistent, not fast. But I sure do miss that "fire." Where it went is still a mystery.

I cling to hope that one day I'll walk outside on a snowy afternoon, inhale a deep gulp of cold, sharp air, and feel it flow into the depths of my lungs. Then I will take off like a banshee, unhindered by any tightness in my chest or anxiety in my head. Someday, once again, I'll run so fast that my vision blurs and my quads burn and I can feel my pulse pumping in my feet. I'll run without fear of losing my breath, gasping and coughing and then feeling flattened for the rest of the day. Someday, even if only for few moments, I will sprint. I never thought I'd say this, but I miss that.

For now I'll continue to tread carefully, and work on becoming stronger. I don't need a lot of wind to lift heavy weights, go for long snowshoe slogs, or push a bike, so I'm going to work on that kind of stuff. I finally joined a small local gym today, after seven months without weight training. I only had a few minutes to try the machines, but I couldn't even do one rep of weights I was pumping at high volume back in February. Sad. I also can only do three or four full-body pushups before my right arm more or less fails. Sadder. Carpal tunnel syndrome definitely put me below even my usual base strength, but it's my intention to get that back.

I'm going to start tracking training weeks on my blog again, which in its own way helps keep me both motivated and honest. Breathing difficulties make outdoor play a lot less fun than it used to be. It's gotten to the point where I find myself making lame excuses to avoid working out. This is not what I want. So I'm fighting to get that back, too — that zeal. It goes along with fire and strength. All things I want. So I'll keep fighting.

It's true that the main thing I'm fighting for right now is the 2017 Iditarod adventure. Sometimes I wonder why I want to go back, yet again, to that cold, lonely, often brutal place. But then all of my memories rush in, with the squeak of wheels on cold snow, the soft chiming of subzero air, unbroken darkness, flares of Northern Lights, vast open space, and absolute solitude. I have to go back. Perhaps soon I'll feel differently, but for now, well — Mike Curiak said it best himself once, before he ultimately stopped returning to Alaska year after year. "If I wasn't here with a bike and a big bag of junk food at the end of February, the sun might not rise for me tomorrow. It's just that simple."

I suppose it can be that simple. Time to start training. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Grand Canyon 2016

After twelve years, I didn't know if there would be anything left to write about the Grand Canyon. It's become my favorite tradition — one I wouldn't trade for any number of adventures around the world. But that doesn't make it a story. It's like coconut cream pie. Every year for as long as I can remember, my mother made coconut cream pie for Thanksgiving. I've eaten dozens of pieces in my lifetime. Coconut cream was my late grandfather's favorite, and every bite brings a rush of nostalgia about riding on his lawnmower, or climbing the old walnut tree. I suppose that's why we have traditions. They're an anchor to something tangible as we drift over a sea of memories. 

It was autumn 2004 when my dad invited me to join him and a large group of his acquaintances on a "Rim to Rim" hike across the Grand Canyon. This was before I stumbled into endurance training, and the prospect was deeply intimidating. I was 25 years old, going through a difficult period in my life, and on the cusp of uprooting everything and moving to Idaho Falls. The weeks leading up to that trip were shrouded in anxiety and angst, but all those feelings faded as the sun rose over the North Rim and revealed sheer canyon walls bathed in golden light.

Completing that first Rim to Rim with Dad was empowering, and helped spur big life decisions. By 2005, of course, most of those decisions had already fallen apart. I was back in the relationship I'd attempted to leave, and surprised everyone (including myself) by moving with him to Homer, Alaska. I interviewed for an Alaska job in August, and one of my conditions was a week off in October so I could fly home for a second hike across the Grand Canyon. The tradition was born.

In 2007, Dad's sister joined us for an unusually early mid-September trip. Temperatures never climbed out of the 60s, and torrential rain and hail followed us up the North Kaibab Trail. Waterfalls gushed off the canyon walls, pummeling the trail in sticks and rocks. My aunt was struggling but stoic during the long march. A few years later she battled and defeated breast cancer, and continues to run half-marathons with her daughters.

 There were the years I missed — 2009, because I couldn't take any more time off work after racing the Tour Divide. 2010, because my grandfather died. His funeral was the day we would have hiked the canyon. 2013, because of the government shutdown. 2014, because I had a torn LCL, so instead I drove the shuttle with my mom. Looking back, Fall Grand Canyon isn't so much of an annual tradition, as it is something to strive for. It's not a given that it will work out, but when it does, it's amazing.

This year, for the first time, Beat joined us. It was his first-ever trip to the Grand Canyon. Driving from Boulder, his attitude was nothing like mine was during my first visit, when all I did was fret about whether I'd be able to haul myself out of the canyon. No, he was scheming rim-to-rim-to-rim-to-rims and such, which never had a chance of working out because we were on a tight time crunch.

 Instead we stuck to the plan to hike from north to south on Friday, and south to north on Saturday. Also joining us was my dad's hiking buddy Raj, who Beat goaded into a sub-six-hour south-to-north traverse on day two.

 Not too much has changed in the past twelve years, but apparently the National Park Service recently placed some rather graphic warning signs. I think most ultrarunners would agree that this hiker is about to feel better.

 Friday evening on the South Rim. It's become tradition to head out to an overlook to watch the sunset (and in this case moonrise) before returning to the hotel cafeteria to eat traditional dinners (I always get the vegetarian chili bowl, and Dad orders chicken pot pie.)

 Morning on the South Kaibab Trail. Beat and Raj were already long gone on their run, while Dad and I enjoyed a more leisurely hike with a morning lemonade break at Phantom Ranch, and lunch at Cottonwood campground.

 We saw temperatures as high as 97 degrees on Friday, and it was still toasty on Saturday.

 It was a mere two years ago that Dad was intimidated by the prospect of two rim-to-rims in two days, but now he seems to take it all in stride. The water had been shut off after the Manzanita rest area, so we blitzed the last five miles and 4,000 feet of climbing without stopping. A decade ago, I remember wondering when Dad might start slowing down. He's 63 now and only getting stronger. I know he's stronger than me. But he insists that he will never attempt a nonstop rim-to-rim-to-rim. "That's when the fun-o-meter starts to go down," he said.

That's fine with me. I'm just happy to hike with my dad. Maybe soon we'll try the Tonto Trail. Maybe a few years down the road, we'll ride mules with my mom to Phantom Ranch. As long as the tradition continues, I'm grateful.