Monday, November 11, 2019

And then, third summer arrives

My mind has been so much more at ease this week than last, when I couldn't shake the jitters and couldn't conceive how I was going to survive four more months of pre-Iditarod anxiety. For my own purposes of coping with an unruly mind, I consider it just another shift in chemistry. Perhaps this week's mild weather helped, though. As usual, the typical structure of seasons just doesn't matter and Colorado weather is all over the place. It's not unlike my moods in that regard, and I find the wild shifts to be oddly comforting. Bring on third summer.

Training continues to go well. I did two cart-drags and two strength-training sessions this week, and feel like I'm making good progress. I especially enjoy the cart-drags for their meditative quality. I listen to podcasts, but in truth I probably only spend about 40 percent of the time actually "listening" to podcasts. More often, I'll pick up an interesting tidbit and run with it, creating extensive stories about these real-life characters or imagining myself in similarly far-sweeping scenarios — trekking across the thin ice of the polar ice cap or working in a grocery store in inner-city Chicago. Honestly, this is the aspect of walking to Nome that I'm most excited to explore ... the mysterious landscapes of the unruly mind. After just two to three hours of strenuous cart-dragging, it already starts to get a bit weird.

On Wednesday morning, Cheryl invited me to join her on one of her structured cycling workouts as she trains for the ITI 350. I've long resisted structured training ... I'd rather be free to do what I want and mediocre than restricted but slightly less mediocre. But I certainly understand the benefit of purpose-driven workouts. Where my goals require me to be a less mediocre version of myself — such as successfully reaching Nome on foot — I really do aim for more structure. I'm also coaching-curious, and perhaps interested in taking on such a challenge — working with a cycling coach — should I ever return to the Tour Divide. So I was interested in observing one of these workouts.

It was a gorgeous morning — 55 degrees and clear — when we headed to South St. Vrain Canyon for a couple of tough 45-minute intervals. My cycling fitness is still not superb after a two-month break, and I've been so focused on strength and long, slow, hard efforts that I don't have much of a high end right now. Cheryl just about shut me down during the supposed warmup. "I'm already in zone four," I gasped as I sped to keep up with her. "I'm going to have to slow down for the intervals."

We did our intervals, complete with coasting cool-down, all the way to the top of the canyon. Just as we started the descent, a frigid wind started to blow up-canyon — east winds are almost unheard of here — accompanied by ominous storm clouds and a stunning drop in temperature. Within minutes, 55 degrees became 35 degrees. We were pedaling downhill into a hard wind, but not hard enough to stave off a painful chill. Both Cheryl and I were silently but concurrently thinking, "If it starts raining, I think I might cry." The sudden change felt like a summer thunderstorm more than a winter storm, and I was on the lookout for lightning and "thundersnow." There was no electricity, but this storm was still highly unpleasant. You only get this depth of full-body cold pain from long coasting descents — I've never experienced such a sensation when running or hiking. As we neared Lyons and I could no longer feel my arms, I admit I was also silently thinking, "I'm so glad I don't have to cycle-train through a Boulder winter."

By late afternoon, temperatures were in the low 20s with freezing drizzle and heavy fog. Temperatures stayed below freezing through Thursday morning, and everything was covered in a sheen of glare ice. Road and sidewalk conditions were treacherous. Fog was still thick in town. But the sun was out over the clouds, and I thought it would be a beautiful morning for my weekly tempo run.

I headed to Mount Sanitas, wearing the too-big spiky shoes that Beat talked me into (because microspikes aren't so effective on verglas.) It was 28 degrees and foggy at the trailhead, but I could see the clouds beginning to break overhead, and was excited to climb above the inversion. I went hard on the steep climb, stooped over and using my hands much more than usual to boost traction on the ice-coated and unbelievably slick boulders. But I was — in the way I often am on Sanitas — single-track-minded with my speed goal, and subsequently fearless. It was so invigorating. I was sweating up a storm in my thin shirt and capris despite below-freezing temperatures. I managed to snag my second-fastest time on the climb, just 10 seconds slower than my PR, which for the record is 28:35. I'm trying to get it below 27 minutes before the season is over — not easy to do in winter conditions. #goals

Come Saturday, record heat was in the forecast and I was all in for this welcome bout of summer of November. I told Beat I wanted to ride my bike all day, but did my usual sleepy Saturday morning, after which I only had about seven hours of daylight to work with. Still, it had been so long since I embarked on a long solo ride, where I just turned pedals and daydreamed and aimed for the far-reaching landscapes where my legs could take me.

I targeted a hilly loop with 7,500 feet of climbing in 50 miles. Patches of ice and mud remained, but for the most part it was warm and dry, even at 9,000 feet. I didn't even need to put on a jacket for the 4,000-foot descent into Boulder, where the temperature at 3 p.m. was nearly 80 degrees (official high of 79F, a record.)

I was in bliss for all of the six hours I was out there, feeling only the slightest tinges of discomfort when it was time to pedal up The Wall on Flagstaff Road, my longtime nemesis. But it was a great ride — tapping my unruly mind's pleasure system with long grinding climbs and exhilarating descents, and waving at the hundreds of folks I saw out and about. I'm not even fully exaggerating here — I passed 13 runners and hikers on County Road 68J, which is this remote nowhere jeep track where it's rare to see anyone. The numbers of runners and cyclists only increased from there, and by Sunshine Canyon there were cars parked up the road for miles. There must have been 200 people on Mount Sanitas at once. Parked cars were blocking the lane on Flagstaff. As a cyclist, I sometimes had to throw a foot down and just wait for passing traffic to squeeze by. It was ridiculous, but in a good way. Everyone wanted to enjoy this beautiful summer day, and I can't blame them.

Temperatures were still toasty on Sunday, but Beat and I wanted to get out for a mountain adventure. We'd already observed most of the snow blown away from our favorite ridges, and I wanted to see something new, so I suggested Wild Basin in Rocky Mountain National Park. To reach the upper portion of the basin, we'd need to hike 16 miles with about 3,000 feet of climbing, which can be a stout distance in winter conditions. Usually you're lucky if the first two miles of trail are tracked out, and trail-breaking in snowshoes is often a 1-1.5mph affair. As such, I created a GPS track to a far-away lake, but suggested a half dozen shorter alternatives.

Having frozen at least somewhat on every Colorado mountain hike I've embarked on since August, I overdressed and carried way too many layers. We could have done this entire route in T-shirts; I don't think temperatures dropped much below 40, and it was sunny with almost no wind. Trail conditions for the first four miles were good — well tracked by national park visitors seeking out Ouzel Falls. The first couple of miles were icy with bare dirt patches, followed by decent packed snow.

Of course, after the turnoff we still had four more of the steepest miles to go. Conditions deteriorated to punchy sugar snow, and then there was no trail at all. Beat was gung-ho to break trail, but lost enthusiasm when we realized we were dealing with a breakable, icy crust covering a seemingly bottomless vat of sugar — the kind of snow conditions where you punch shin-deep into icy shards and then the tips of your snowshoes become stuck under the crust. Awful stuff. I was at my strength limit just following behind Beat, usually punching in several inches deeper into the print he'd already broken. I'd also neglected to download the correct GPS track — which I had drawn up to begin with — so he had to do all of the navigating through this bewildering maze of wooded slopes and rocky outcroppings.

We were indeed moving at 45-minute-mile pace and drenched in sweat. The forest closed in, and beautiful mountains loomed just beyond view. It always seemed like the scenery goods were right around the next corner, though, so we kept moving.

I do love giving Beat a GPS track, because if there's an established "finish line," you can bet he'll reach it. And we made it to our outlying goal, Lion Lake. Yay!

Soaking up sunshine in front of a frozen Lion Lake and Mount Alice, which is on my list of peaks to climb ... someday. On this day, we couldn't linger long at our hard-sought reward. It was already nearly 2 p.m., and we had to beat feet downhill to race the declining daylight ... which disappears so quickly this time of year ... as well as rapidly deteriorating snow conditions. I struggled even more with the descent than I did with the climb, as the bindings on my snowshoes kept loosening when my feet became stuck under the crust, often throwing me forward into a face full of icy snow. By the time we returned to the lower elevations, a substantial amount of snow had melted in just the few hours we were up here, and even the well-packed trail had become punchy.

No worries about summer being the new winter here, as we're back to single digits and fresh snow on this Monday morning as I type this quick weekly training post. I hope to write a more substantial blog post about gear and race goals soon. But I know, whatever. No one reads blogs anymore, so putting all of that in writing is mostly for my own benefit. It does help me, though. My chattering mind would be all over the place, otherwise. 
Monday, November 04, 2019

Winter closes in

All of my favorite weather happened this week, and yet stoke fell flat. I couldn't quite understand the reason. Maybe fatigue? Is the strength stuff is starting to wear me down? Not enough protein? The skin on my upper legs and ankles broke out in a rash, which I've come to associate with an unidentified "flare" of sorts that brings other symptoms, including occasional breathing difficulty, moodiness and increased anxiety.

Whatever the reason, I was weirdly anxious this week. It started with the insidious polar vortex. You'd think I'd be a fan of polar vortex, but I'm really not. These atmospheric ridges that push Arctic cold down toward the center of the continent, where I live, create unseasonably warm weather for Alaska and the fire-stricken Pacific Coast. I empathized with friends in California affected by these wildfires, while more selfishly tracking weather systems over Alaska. If the cold doesn't settle in soon, Alaska rivers won't freeze properly, which could cause unworkable conditions along the Iditarod Trail. I'm already bracing for the probability of a warm and wet March across Alaska, which would carry a high likelihood of damp misery, wet-snow slogging and macerated feet.

I know it's useless to fret about such things at any time — especially in late October — but I almost couldn't help myself this week. My primitive brain was weirdly affected by nebulous negative energy, and not all that amenable to my conscious positive suggestions. One night I had an anxiety dream about one of the scariest places I know, which is the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River, shrouded by pre-dawn darkness during the 2014 ITI. In my dream, like in my memories, I was walking over the black ice of the river and I could hear water rushing beside me. When I turned my headlamp toward the sound, I could see the cascade of black water, gurgling out of a lead in the thin ice. The crack was widening. It was about to consume me. Then I awoke in my bed in Colorado. My lower back and legs were damp with sweat. The bedroom was unbearably hot. It was 3 a.m., and only 2 degrees outside.

A few days later, I read a news story that unnerved me, about a school teacher from Colorado Springs who was lost on Mount Shavano during that same cold night that brought my anxiety dream. He wandered through the night, losing a shoe at one point, but kept walking because if he stopped, "my life went away from me." He made it down to his truck and called 911, so he did succeed in self-extracting and surviving. But by the time the news story came out on Friday, he'd already had both of his legs amputated below the knee.

"That is a severe case of frostbite, for just one night," was my first thought. But I continued to ruminate on the story, imagining the scenario that might have a person much like myself chasing a mountain a little too late into an early-season winter day, losing a trail normally familiar to me, being lost and confused after dark as temperatures dipped well below zero, and feeling the life force drain out of me as I stumbled along, losing hope. Margins are so thin in these environments, and one error can spiral out of control with alarming speed. As a maker of mistakes, I try to bolster my own margin for error  — beyond the obvious spare layers and emergency bivy gear, I carry a GPS with spare batteries to avoid getting lost, and a satellite messenger beacon with two-way communication. But any loss of self-sufficiency greatly reduces one's odds of survival. I could see myself in this scenario, and it was unnerving.

 This week had a whole lot of good in it, too — beautiful snowy scenery, lots of time outside, and all of my training efforts went well. I wrote the preface to this post because darkness occasionally persists, anyway. It casts a shadow over the most beautiful vistas, chattering away about everything that can go wrong — in my adventures, in my life and the whole world in general. Learning to recognize the nebulous shadow and make efforts to battle it will be an important part of my training, too. Because when it closes in while I'm alone and scared, it will be that much more difficult to vanquish.

With that, here's my week in training:

 Monday morning brought another fresh coat of snow and temperatures around 10 degrees. This is the best winter cycling weather, so I pulled out the fat bike purely for fun. No one had been out to break trail at Walker or Meyer Homestead, so this turned into a solid strength workout with an element of agility — often hidden ice or rocks underneath the powder caught me by surprise. It was so lovely, though, that I didn't mind churning along at 4 mph or swerving erratically until I finally threw a boot down to bike-ski for several meters.

 By Tuesday, the polar vortex had encompassed most of the flyover states, and the Denver-Boulder metro area was right in the center of its cold, snowy heart. All kinds of October temperature records were broken. By Wednesday morning, Boulder officially measured the most snowfall from the storm — 13 inches. Beat worked from home to avoid the commuter mess in town, so we headed out in the morning for a sled- and cart-drag. It was 8 degrees with light snowfall. In the absence of sunlight and accompanied by a stiff breeze, the humid air felt especially brisk. In the interest of training with something more realistic than 70-plus pounds of concrete pressing against a tiny surface area, I loaded up a duffel with six gallons of water in one-gallon jugs. This, sadly, is probably close to the weight that my Nome sled will hold. It was heavy.

 Beat dragged Allen the Taskmaster through the fresh snow. The road was recently plowed but had its own layer of glare ice underneath dry powder, which was incredibly slippery in unpredictable patches. Beat took two hard falls in a row (I didn't witness them, as he was way ahead of me) and turned his ankle, resulting in swelling and bruising. I slipped in the same spot and did a single-footed boot ski for at least ten feet before I caught some traction, amazingly without falling over.
 On Wednesday morning, October still wasn't over but our neighborhood was encompassed by solidly mid-winter conditions. The overnight low at home was -2.2F — and it's rare to see subzero here at any time of year. I planned to meet Beat in town at 4 p.m. and wanted to travel there on foot. There's a 14-mile route that's mostly trail with around 2,500 feet of climbing — most of that in the first four miles — which usually takes me about three and a half hours in dry conditions. How long would it take today? I gave myself five hours, but should have sprung for six.

 On the West Ridge of Green Mountain, not a soul had passed through since the 13 inches of fresh snow. This is a trail I know well, but it became difficult to locate at times. This was Wednesday and I didn't yet know about the man lost on Mount Shavano, but I'd think back to breaking trail on Green as I visualized his situation. You can believe you know a trail like the back of your hand, but when the facade of familiarity is buried, you realize you don't have a clue.

 The going was slow through the fresh snow, and I was frustrated about that. I found it almost impossible to boost my heart rate over 130, even as my quad muscles quivered and burned. My legs felt like they were on that edge of seizing up, yet my breathing was calm and I had plenty of energy to burn. I decided the endeavor was a good practice in patience for now, and limits for later. In a race like the ITI my legs will be just as tired, all of the time, and I won't have the excess energy to waste on feeling frustrated.

 The familiar view from the top of Green Mountain was so lovely. There was only one track descending the Ranger Trail, and it was the first of its kind I've ever seen on Green Mountain — an alpine ski track! Green almost never has enough snow coverage for skiing, and even when it does, it's a steep and heavily wooded slope with abundant boulders and drop-offs. Thirteen inches of powder over dirt with that many hidden rocks was difficult to navigate even with my slow and well-anchored feet. I was in awe of this person defying gravity to weave through every obstacle, threading their way down the hidden trail with improbable precision. Kudos to you, fearless skier with one hell of a pair of rock skis. Thanks for showing me the way.

 The trail-breaking continued for most of the miles to town ... Chapman had only old ski tracks, mostly buried under the fresh layers of powder. Tenderfoot was untrammeled, and Flagstaff was sprinkled intermittently with footprints ... probably because a lot of snow was raining down from the trees, amounting to more sunny-day accumulation. By Gregory Canyon I was wholly exhausted, and had only 15 minutes to run to Beat's office, which was 3.2 miles away. I called him about meeting up at Gregory instead, but I think he was worried about making me wait in the cold, and told me he'd wait for me at work. I made my best effort at running, truly. My legs were heavy and tired, and the sidewalk conditions were far from ideal — mostly they were a mess of stirred-up sandy snow, with the occasional ankle-deep slush puddle, or bumpy ice. I still arrived in 30 minutes, with ice cubes tangled in my untied shoelaces and a single base layer drenched in sweat at 20 degrees ... only to find Beat annoyed that I'd taken so long and didn't answer my phone, which I didn't hear, probably because I was breathing so hard.

Photo by Eszter
I front-loaded the week with too much snowy fun, so Thursday and Friday contained many chores and also two gym weight-lifting days in a row, which was probably a bad idea. Yet I still couldn't pass up an opportunity to ride bikes with Scott and Eszter, who were in town for an oh-so-brief visit before escaping to New Zealand for four months of Southern Hemisphere summer. They don't love winter the way I love winter, as you might imagine. Yet they were the ones who suggested a ride up Sunshine Canyon on this 35-degree day. This surprised me, because I can't imagine a more frigid activity than descending 3,000 feet over 9 miles on a low-geared mountain bike when roads are wet and temperatures are near freezing. Of course I agreed.

It was a fun ride up, and I hardly noticed the effort as we chatted about my and Scott's childhoods in Salt Lake City, as well as the latest endurance cycling gossip. At the top of Gold Hill, we stopped to add layers. A few seasons of winter cycling in Boulder have taught me to carry the kitchen sink for winter rides — coasting for 45 minutes with a 30 mph windchill in temperatures near freezing is truly the worst pain I've experienced in any workout here. There were times that I'd show up at Beat's office almost in tears, unable to move my arms, and he'd have to make me a hot cup of tea. Of course you can put on six or seven extra layers and it's still not enough. It's never enough. But after we suited up, this descent wasn't so bad. Eszter, who is originally from Boulder, called it "fairly to moderately miserable" and said it wasn't anywhere near the top of her list of worst descents from "Hypothermia Canyon."

By Saturday, temperatures were creeping back toward normal — 46 degrees, which is still below normal for November 2, felt unseasonably warm. I did a three-hour cart-drag. Soft mud and packed snow added to the resistance, and the effort was harder than I cared to admit to myself. I came home and couldn't find much in the way of mental energy for writing, but tried anyway, because I should not be so tired after three measly hours. Maybe I am pushing myself too hard in my strength workouts, and should try backing off for a bit. Still, I am just getting started, and I have less than four months now to become so much stronger than my current state of fitness. What to do. What to do.

 On Sunday, the plan was to head up to Brainard Lake for more wind training. The forecast called for 35-45 mph gusts in Ward, which usually means 60+ at higher altitudes. I was dreading this excursion. My state of mind was soured by thoughts of the man who lost both of his feet to frostbite because of a mountain, as well as a weird situation with a friend who posted a vague but alarming Facebook update and then went missing. As far as I can tell that situation still hasn't resolved, but there are indicators that he's currently all right. Still, I was thinking about this for much of the day. What if?

 It was, indeed, a brutally windy morning. I was having a tough time breathing amid the fearsome headwind as we trudged up the snow-covered road toward Brainard Lake. Temperatures were warm though, about 37 degrees at the trailhead, and all of my wind layers were doing their job by blocking so much of the chill that I was sweating heavily. But if I pulled down a zipper or face mask to vent heat, the result was instantaneous flash-freezing.

 Above Brainard Lake, we set to the task of breaking trail. Beat enthusiastically did all of the hard work, which was considerable with deep powder in the trees and a breakable crust near treeline. I remained grumpy, complaining about the stiff bindings on my "rock snowshoes" and proclaiming that I didn't feel comfortable with the force of the wind. Bracing against gusting crosswinds left me convinced that I wasn't leaving this mountain without taking at least one end-over-end tumble. Hopefully it would happen somewhere soft.

 As expected, the unobstructed wind above treeline was almost unworkable, a heaving and unpredictable force that I visualized as wrestling with a ghost. The tundra was mostly scoured, but there were still frequent drifts to contend with, so we tromped over the rocks in our purpose-intended, already-beaten-up snowshoes. We also didn't feel fully comfortable stopping to take off anything, even snowshoes, for fear that they would blow away before we could secure them to our packs.

 Such is the difficulty of managing anything in such strong winds — you can't stop. You really can't. I learn this in new ways each time I venture into the wind. One of the most enduring lessons was crossing the sea ice on the Iditarod Trail in 2016 — completely exposed to 35 mph winds at -5 to 0 degrees. First, I realized that stopping to drop my pants and relieve myself let the cold cut so deep that it left me in physical pain, so I stopped drinking water to eliminate this need. Also, during one of those excruciating bio breaks, I anchored a bike pedal in the ice and turned my back on my rig for about ten seconds, during which time the wind managed to spin the bike and capture a semi-loose bag of trail mix that must have weighed more than a pound, along with a Snickers bar, some fruit snacks and a chapstick, and whisked them all into oblivion. That was all of the food I had out for the rest of the day, but I wasn't about to open up my bike bags and risk losing anything else. I had to keep moving. Such is the demand of the wind.

 Here, on these wind-scoured Colorado mountains, my biggest fear is that I'll lose my balance and start tumbling over the rocks, or take a long slide down a snow field. Gusty winds moving at freeway speeds one moment and only half that speed the next are highly destabilizing, especially for someone who feels unstable in the best of conditions. So I did not want to continue beyond the lower ridge, and Beat agreed it would be a ridiculous mission. Earlier this week we had talked about summiting Mount Audubon. It seems doable when memories of August are still fresh, but becomes highly ridiculous in the face of reality just a few months later. It might as well not even be the same mountain.

 Instead we headed down toward Mitchell Lake, where the wind was relatively pleasant in the trees ... again, perspective is everything, because the wind hadn't improved much from the morning, when weather stations were measuring 57.5 mph gusts down in Ward.

Overall, I'm actually pleased with how this week of training went. It was difficult, I had some low points, and I'm tired ... but what training would be effective if I never felt tired? I know it's important not to overdo it, but there are limits I need to push. It probably is better to explore them now, still months out from the event. I'm already feeling better, because the Brainard wind training was an exhilarating adventure. My rash is clearing up, so I'm hopeful this short "flare" is also subsiding. I hope my friend is okay. I don't quite know yet, but I reached out in the only way I can right now. And I also believe the injured school teacher will be just fine, based on his last status update:

"Trying not to feel two defeeted."

If I ever survive an ordeal like that, I hope I'm still in high enough spirits to make Dad jokes. Or whatever it takes. 
Sunday, October 27, 2019

Moving is winning

Beat accused me of being a glutton for punishment this week. “You’re going to start the ITI totally broken.”

"I am not. This isn't even close to overtraining. Conditioning is important. And it's still less time per week than I managed for most of the summer."

It's true, though, that most of my activity over the summer was closer to my comfort zone — not so focused on building strength, not purposefully seeking out the worst conditions, and not waking up every morning with delayed-onset muscle soreness.

But it's difficult to see any downsides, because I've felt so good. Nothing I do feels too difficult or overtaxing, compared to similar efforts in recent years. My health progression has been such a slow-motion rollercoaster that I don't often acknowledge the striking differences between now and then. A conversation with my Dad last month brought some of the low points back into the spotlight. We were talking about his visit to Colorado in July 2017, when we hiked nine miles to South Arapahoe Peak and back. What was a pretty mellow outing for my 64-year-old father was absolutely crushing for me. "Remember your heart rate was 180 and you kept stopping to rest?" he recalled. "And you almost turned around?"

I'd mostly forgotten. There's a lot about 2017 that I've shoved into the shadows of memory. But it's true — just a little over two years ago, I was at my limit doing the simplest things. By July, I'd been on medication for four months and would insist to anyone who asked that I'd essentially recovered from my thyroid condition. Sure, I was breathing hard. Sure, I'd max out my heart rate while hiking at 2.5 mph. But you should have seen me in January, when I couldn't walk around a grocery store without wheezing.

I fought, fiercely, for every minute of motion I achieved that year. As my health improved, movement became easier, but so gradually that I barely noticed — the same way I didn't quite notice how unfit I became as I grew sick, until I was struggling to catch my breath as I climbed the stairs at home. Thinking about that hike with Dad brought a flood of 2017 memories that I'd so effectively shoved aside — dragging my bike into a ditch off of Flagstaff Road because I genuinely didn't think I'd be able to even push the bike the rest of the way home, and didn't want passersby to see me crying ... planning an eight-hour ride and turning around after 45 minutes because I'd only traveled three miles and I was gassed ... grasping for acceptance that at age 38 I'd used up all of my endurance capital and would now spend the rest of my life straining for short distances at slow paces, and that was just going to have to be okay. I openly talked about finding an "old lady hiking group" to join and help ease the transition. Any motion is still motion, and it's still worth it.

March 2019 photo with Nome's Saturday morning fat bike club, riding through a stream of wind-driven snow.

These memories of battling so hard for motion ... any motion ... reminded me of a fun group I met in Nome earlier this year. During those few weeks when I lived at what to me felt like the edge of the world, I connected with a Saturday morning fat bike club. The leader of this club is a school teacher who had once been a talented runner. I write this in the past tense because he doesn't run anymore. During his first school year in Nome, he was training for the Boston Marathon. His training plan had him running six-minute miles through the Nome winter, in what I think anyone would agree was the worst weather imaginable. One afternoon he went out during a strong windstorm, but it was 10 degrees above zero, "not cold," he said, so he didn't have anything covering his face. The next day, his throat was sore. A couple of weeks later, when the sore throat had only become worse, he finally went to see a doctor. The doctor swabbed his throat and returned with an alarming mass of black tissue. Turns out, he had a frostbitten trachea. Yes, it is possible to literally freeze the inside of your throat.

His breathing has not been the same since. But he can still manage long slow distance and doesn't seem to mind cycling in the cold wind that dominates Nome nearly every day of the winter. We headed out for my first Saturday morning ride into the teeth of an east wind, which had buried the trail in at least a foot of powder. Mostly we pushed our bikes, until we reached a row of fishing shacks about four miles outside of town. I looked at my watch. It had taken us two and a half hours to get there. Beyond the buildings, the swirling ground storm looked like something out of an Everest disaster film — just white chaos into white infinity. We had to shout at full volume just to hear each other over the wind. Any hint of a trail had long since disappeared, and we were bashing through waist-deep drifts, searching for something, anything, on which to ride our bikes. I thought this group was by far the strangest Saturday morning bike club in existence. Who does this? When I voiced the reality of our ridiculous situation to the trip leader, he replied that it doesn't matter how far the group rides each week. Just as long as they ride.

"Moving is winning," he said.

And I thought, "That is the most perfect mantra ever. I'm going to adopt that."

With that, here are the Strava selfies from this past week of training:

On Monday I hit the gym aggressively, as I'm reaching that sweet spot of progression after a long break. But I'm back to pre-August numbers and improving, so I enthusiastically increased all of the upper body weights, then overdid the one-legged squats, lunges, leg lifts, blah blah. I was pretty sore for the Tuesday morning cart pull. But I'm still improving rapidly in this as well, and got my 6.2 miles under two hours this week.

Wednesday, my other town/gym day, is also good for a tempo run at the best loop in Boulder, the Sanitas Swoop (super steep climb, runnable descent.) It was another hot Wednesday morning, by which I mean it was 51 degrees. Despite overdressing for the relative heat, I managed to hold my tempo pace (over 160 bpm for the climb), and snagged a PR for the full loop. These once-weekly tempo runs and the strength training have been surprisingly fun. During the summer I overbuilt my endurance to the point where I receive relatively few endorphins from long slow slogs, but this short stuff generates a delicious hit of serotonin.

The sun set on the warm beige hues typical of late October, and rose Thursday morning to ten inches of fresh snow. Where did that come from? Yes, we're having a particularly bipolar shoulder season, and I'm here for that. I like when nature keeps me on my toes. One of my favorite things to do in fresh snow is trudge to the top of Bear Peak, and I figured I'd take advantage of snowy road conditions to drag a sled for the first time this season.

For ballast I used a bag of concrete that I found while clearing the driveway for our firewood delivery last week. It had been sitting outside in a paper bag, so it soaked up an unknown amount of rainwater and hardened to a nicely-shaped concrete rock, probably in the range of 70 pounds. When I tried to pick up the awkward mass, I could not. "Not to self — add deadlifts to the gym routine," I said out loud as I rolled the concrete boulder into the back of the sled and strapped it down. Seventy pounds is about the weight I drag in my cart, but it goes without saying that wheels on a hard surface are a lot easier to maneuver than a sled through deep, saturated snow. Just tugging that thing up the driveway made it clear that I was in for a tough morning.

The road to the West Ridge trailhead is 1.5 miles long, 1.1 miles of which are a steady and reasonably steep climb. None of my neighbors had plowed or even driven the road as of 10 a.m., so I made first tracks through the shin-deep sludge. The sled tugged so aggressively that I frequently looked back to make sure it hadn't snagged on something. No, that was just how it was going to be. My hamstrings and glutes were searing with rather alarmingly sharp pain. My lower back also strained to the point that I had to readjust the harness and take more on the shoulders. That hurt too. So slow. Such trudge. I put my head down and listened to "This American Life" until I was finally within sight of trailhead, at which time I looked down at my watch. One hour and fifteen minutes!?! This section usually takes 17-18 minutes on my routine runs.

Of course I hadn't even done the fun part yet and wasn't about to give that up, so I dropped the sled, shouldered my regular backpack, and continued the trudge for another 1.5 steep miles to the summit of Bear Peak. The trail had yet to be broken, and it's so rocky that it can be difficult to follow through the snow. I often need to "scout" a step with my hands so I don't slip off a hidden boulder. Which is to say this was all slow-going as well. I arrived at the peak with 2:35 on my watch, and was in disbelief at this point. I don't think this has ever taken me much more than an hour. But, oh, aren't the plains pretty when they're covered in snow?

As a final indignity, when I arrived back at the sled, I found the road freshly plowed by my neighbor. You know what puts up even more resistance than wet, early-season snow? Muddy gravel! At first I tried to drag the sled through the snow berm off to the side, but between the chunk ice and brush, it was impossible. I should have just ditched the concrete block and come back for it later. (Or discretely rolled it down the hill. Kidding, neighbors.) But I was stubborn. I made it home with four hours on my watch, half the day gone, and just incredulous about the whole thing. That was six miles. Six miles! My legs were dead, stiffening up before I even walked into the house. How should I even gauge this workout — fantastic, or so ridiculous that it's contemptible? I suppose for Iditarod training, outrageously ridiculous is the way to go. Moving is winning.

On Friday, temperatures shot back up to nearly 60 degrees. My legs were still so sore that I was zombie-walking around the house, which is what lead to the aforementioned conversation with Beat. But I was so full of energy. Interesting weather and adventure training is like crack for me; I need more, more. I spent the morning working on projects and letting snow melt just so I could go out in the afternoon and take a gritty mud bath with my long-neglected fat bike. The gravel roads were simply slimy and muddy, but the trail was buried inches deep in horrible slurry — think chocolate-colored Slurpee. This trail is doubletrack that drains well, so I didn't need to worry about making ruts, but even the fat tires had no grip. It was like trying to ride up a waterslide. So hard, yet so fun! Really, I wish this bike had a power meter, because even though I was moving slowly on sore legs, this felt like the fiercest 33 minutes I've ever spent turning a crank. The resulting descent was a predictable slush shower. I returned home looking like I'd lost a mud-wrestling match to my own bicycle. I had to hose both of us down before going into the house. Poor fat bike — so undeserving of such abuse.

On Saturday, the heat cranked up even more. The high temperature at our house was 66 degrees, and it nearly hit 80 degrees in Denver. We'd never know it, though, because we'd already made a decision to spend the day snowshoeing on Niwot Ridge. Yet another polar vortex was en route from the north, and the air flow resulted in an extreme temperature variation at altitude and subsequently bonkers wind.

The CU weather station on the ridge would measure this day's high temperature at 25 degrees. As for wind, I'm still waiting for the official data to come through, but from experience I'd say it was consistently blowing 40-50 mph, with gusts to 60 mph. Sixty miles per hour is the threshold where I have a difficult time staying upright, and need to stop walking to anchor both feet.

We knew this going in — we were actively seeking out such nastiness. Becoming more familiar with the wind is paramount for surviving any trip to Nome. The three most difficult conditions that Alaska can dole out are (in my opinion): consistently low temperatures, especially those that drop below -40; temperatures near freezing with heavy precipitation; and winds over 25 mph, which become exponentially more difficult to manage at lower temperatures. It's even difficult for me to rank which weather condition is the most daunting. I have relatively little experience with -40, but the coldest I've ever been was in a 32-degree rainstorm, and the most frightened I've ever been was in a 35 mph windstorm with the temperature just below 0F. Wind is not fun and will never be fun, but I intend to make peace with it, as well as I can. 

Note about this photo: I was not leaning on purpose.
This turned out to be the perfect setting for the season's first wind training, since temperatures were not that low but the wind was about as fierce as it gets. Beat tested out his new wind fleece from Columbia. I wore the old Mountain Hardwear windshield monkey fleece that has been my favorite piece of gear since 2013. It's both bulky and heavy, but it works. It always works. Forty below, 32 and raining, 60 mph winds ... it's always been there for me, shedding frost, expelling perspiration, keeping out wind. This coat is finally wearing thin, and I was bummed about that. This particular coat hasn't been manufactured since 2014 or so, but last year Beat found a new-with-tags replacement on Poshmark of all places. So the newer coat is going with me to Nome this year, and I want to keep it in top condition. The old coat is still impressively effective.

Beat liked his Columbia fleece, and I have to admit that the fact it lacks fuzzy fibers is a plus for scenarios with blowing snow. My jacket breathes well, and escaped moisture turns to frost, which I can easily brush off the "fur." But the fur also captures snow, and becomes quite wet during storms. So that's something to consider as I nail down my gear list.

All in all, this was a successful gear-testing trip. I didn't try anything new, but I was reminded how much I like my goggles, which Beat has retrofitted with a duckbill-like nose piece made of windproof fleece and silnylon. This attachment not only prevents the goggles from fogging, but also allows me to breathe freely without a face mask. I'm sensitive about what I put on my face. I can not do the Cold Avenger mask, for example, because after a few minutes I feel like I'm both suffocating and drowning in my own snot. I prefer to keep air flowing freely while protecting my lungs from the worst of the cold. This is tough to do with any face mask (balaclavas work well for me when it's not windy.) But the goggles are amazing. Seeing clearly and breathing freely into a 60mph ground blizzard — this feels like a superpower.

The upper ridge had been largely blown clear of snow, and I ended up bending the cleat on one of my good snowshoes (grrr) ... but the views were lovely on this bluebird day.

Meanwhile, I was frequently reminded of both the month I spent in Nome, as well as Everest disaster films. I never had my camera out to catch a proper image, but during larger gusts I would see Beat ahead, slumped over with his big backpack or looking back at me through his mask and goggles, surrounded by an apocalypse of blowing snow. The scene was so exhilarating and dramatic. Apparently, it was 80 degrees somewhere not far from here.

By Sunday, the third wintermission of autumn 2019 had closed in. It was 17 degrees with a dusting of new snow when we set out for a relatively quick and easy 10-mile jaunt around the loop at Walker Ranch.

It was a lovely morning with light flurries, softened vistas and silence broken only by the crunch of footsteps on fresh powder. This, truly, is magic. The ability to enter this world and breathe in its beauty without distress feels — these days — like a kind of superpower. I'm so grateful to have this source of strength ... which I can appreciate so much more because it wasn't there just two years ago. But I also recognize it could fade away again, anytime, so I'm seizing each moment and relishing every step.

Perspective is what matters. Moving is winning. Always.