Monday, May 23, 2016

Broken, not broken

Beat with our Iditarod-inspired tripod. He collected the markers from downed trees off the trail in March.
This week I've been less enthused about my runs, dragging around a sore leg and the knowledge that my hand is not going to get better on its own. Last Wednesday, a doctor performed a nerve conduction study and concluded I have "very severe" carpal tunnel syndrome. The numbers point to grade five, which is as advanced as this injury becomes before the nerve stops firing altogether, and the damage can be permanent. There's already muscle atrophy. My distal motor latency has actually deteriorated since I had a similar test done in March, even though I gave up the activity that prompted my symptoms (cycling), wore a wrist brace, performed PT exercises, and took anti-inflammatories. At this point, the cause is impossible to determine — my case is definitely not typical, and there's no way to say whether it's overuse from the race to Nome, acute injury from a crash, genetics, a combination, or something else entirely. All I know is it's bad, and getting worse. Both the doctor who conducted the test and the surgeon I originally consulted were adamant that I not mess around with this.

The results must have been concerning enough to fast-track through an overbooked schedule, because the surgeon offered an appointment next week. The next available dates weren't until July. I booked it, because the odds of full recovery after transverse carpal ligament release are high. Without surgery, the odds that I'd have to manage this for the rest of my life also are high. That's nerve injury. I learned a similar lesson in 2009 — "Frostbite is forever."

I did not expect busy Boulder doctors to expedite this process, so I'd already registered for what I hoped would be my first trail race in Colorado, the Golden Gate Dirty 30. The race is June 4, so clearly I won't be able to participate. Disappointment about this is among the many emotions the prospect of surgery has ignited.

Of course there's anticipation. (No more invisible spiders crawling all over my fingers, no more electric shock pain!)

And there's fear. (Unless you count wisdom teeth extraction when I was 15, I've never had surgery. I might die. That possibility is noted in the manual.)

There's disbelief. (Given my risky and high-impact sporting activities, I would have never guessed my first surgery would target a stereotypical typing injury.)

And hope. (I might be able to hand-write like an adult, draw, eat with a fork and knife, and ride bikes again by July!)

 I was bummed out after Wednesday's nerve conduction test. Beyond the bad numbers, the phrase "it's getting worse" is especially discouraging after you've spent two months avoiding something you loved because you believed abstinence would make your injury better. Adding to this helpless feeling was the full limp I was sporting after slipping in mud and bashing my leg on rocks during a run on Tuesday. A bruise the size and shape of a softball ballooned out from my shin, and hurt quite a bit. But it was "just a bruise," and I was feeling defiant about this pathetic array of limb injuries, so I took a couple of lunchtime hours to march up Fern Canyon.

Fern Canyon has become a personal nemesis, because it is perhaps the meanest of the mean (standard hiking) routes in the Flatirons. I maintain concerns that I will always be a flailing, stumbling, inadequate mountain runner/hiker. This is particularly sad if I continue as a non-cyclist, and my only running options are mountains. I love mountains. But they do not love me. At least, I believe they might be conspiring with gravity to knock me around a bit. I was thinking about this the other day as I crept down Gregory Canyon — no matter how much I practice this, I may not improve because the issue isn't limited skills or strength, it's balance perception. If I descend Gregory Canyon enough, eventually I'll have a stronger core and ankles, but I'll likely still feel the pull of vertigo with every step. How much training does it take to realign proprioception?

But yes, Fern Canyon. My leg hurt, but I tagged Bear Peak, and this weirdly made me feel a lot better.

 The rest of the week involved some running around with a painful bruised leg, because I was in training for the Dirty 30 and wanted to make sure my proprioception was dialed. Beat guided me on a tour of a couple of the semi-secret routes on Green Mountain, which were steep and fun but shattered any confidence I may have tenuously gained.

At least my writing projects are going well this week. I am really enjoying working on my Iditarod book, although a few hours of submersing myself in it often leaves me more exhausted than a long run. I'm also negotiating a contract to have "Be Brave, Be Strong" produced as an audio book. No, I won't be the narrator — therefore, it might actually be okay. The adventure genre is a challenging market for books, because a fair percentage of the audience are not regular readers. Audio books are great for busy folks who perhaps want a diversion while they're commuting or out for a long run. I've resisted offers to work on audio books in the past, because — full disclosure — I don't enjoy and don't listen to audio books (for me, something is lost when I'm being talked at, rather than reading. Perhaps I'm too attached to having full control of my reading experience. Or have too short an attention span.) But this is a good opportunity. I'm excited!

After my consultation with the surgeon on Monday, I was again bummed out, because there was admittedly a sliver of hope that she would look at my results and say "hey, I think a cortisone shot could fix this." (A cortisone shot probably wouldn't even mitigate the pain of grade 5 CTS.) It was again lunchtime, so I again went to the Cragmoor trailhead for another go at Fern Canyon. My leg was finally feeling less sore after I took a day off Sunday and the swelling had gone down, so I marched happily up to Bear Peak through intermittent rainstorms. My goal was to do the descent a bit better, so I furrowed my brow in concentration and employed my trekking pole for a little more stability as I hopped down rock steps. Near the bottom of Fern Canyon, when the 1,900 feet-in-0.8-mile-descent veers onto a nicely runnable doubletrack, I stepped up on a boulder and clumsily bashed my sore shin on the rock.

!!!! There were loud swear words.

I may have lost my temper and stabbed my trekking pole violently into the rock, multiple times, with enough force to make deep gouges in the surface. It's amazing the pole didn't snap. +1 Black Diamond carbon Z-Pole.

The bruise is swollen again, and larger than before.

Well. Clearly it's my turn to feel broken right now. I'll find another way around it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

More fog (actual fog)

 When Beat and I were preparing to move away from California, several of our friends there expressed disbelief that we'd deign to leave the perfect weather of the Bay Area.

"Colorado has 300 days of sun!" Beat would exclaim.

"I get pretty tired of perfect weather," I'd say truthfully, omitting the detail that I've lived through the other extreme and I didn't always tolerate that well, either.

Now I'm experiencing spring in the Colorado Rockies, and so far I've seen a delightful pendulum of snowing - 80 degrees - raining - 80 degrees - fog - snain.

 For the past four days, it's been fog. At 7,000 feet, the haze is thick. This seems to make me more productive, probably because I spend less time staring out the window. Over the weekend Beat and I completed the organization of our gear room, of which I'm quite proud. Beat even built sturdy wooden racks for our bikes and trekking poles. We still spend our time sitting on camp chairs and eating off a camp table next to the wood stove — but we have a gear room! It feels like growing up.

Beat volunteered at a 50-mile trail race, Quadrock, on Saturday. His duties required waking up at 1:30 a.m., so I lazily declined to join. Instead I set out to explore the two major canyons of the Flatirons that I hadn't yet seen, Eldorado and Shadow canyons. The fog was a veritable cream-based soup that descended all the way to the valley floor, so I didn't take many photos. In fact it was a beautiful route, even shrouded in gray. But this didn't stop me from indulging in a pout session during the climb up Shadow Canyon, because I was moving at snail's pace and still having difficulty breathing, and why do all of the trails here have to be rock staircases that gain 1,800 feet per mile?

I think my acclimation is improving. The sleepy/headachy phase is over, and I do feel more clear-headed during the day. I know full acclimation can take months, but I do become frustrated over the fact I'm nearly always out of breath whenever I'm exercising. My legs are basically bored, but my lung capacity is stretched so thin that I'm sucking wind probably 80 percent of the time. This fuels my lung angst — an idea that my lungs were permanently scarred in 2015, and my oxygen-processing capabilities will always be less than they once were (and they were never great to begin with.) This (hopefully unfounded) fear is compounded by the fact that I am no longer taking maintenance asthma medication, so I'm always nervous that an attack is around the corner. So far I've been managing well without the inhaler, but the angst remains.

The problem, I believe, may stem from pushing myself too hard, especially when I don't think what I'm doing should be so hard. What I need to do is accept the fact that here, for now at least, my runs are going to closely resemble hikes, and that's okay. For me, running has always been about finding the most efficient way to travel long distances across variable terrain on foot, rather than push the pace as hard as I possibly can. Sometimes pushing as hard as I possibly can is a 45-minute mile, and that's okay too.

 Anyway, I was still grumpy about my bored legs and frazzled lungs when I tagged South Boulder Peak and sat down in the fog for a snack. Just as soon as I settled onto a rock, an incredibly strong gust of wind tore across the ridge. The sonic blast nearly knocked me off my perch, and I was sitting down. After the gust moved past, I turned to see a sudden break in the fog, revealing the crest of the Continental Divide, and nothing else.

 Looking east, I could see the thick inversion below. Within two minutes, another massive gust ripped past, and everything was shrouded again. This was the only clear view I received over the course of a 4.5-hour, 12.5-mile "run." It was worth it.

 The fog stuck close to home all weekend, as did these deer, reminding me that if I ever get around to planting a vegetable garden, it's going to be an all-out war. I embarked on shorter runs in a mixed bag of rain drizzle, snain, and what I'm pretty sure were ice pellets. My lungs seemed more amenable to working harder and my hand hurts less when it's cold, so this is basically my perfect weather for running.

 On Tuesday morning, we woke up to a dusting of snow. Ah, so pretty.

 What? It's May 17?

 And it's 90 degrees in Los Altos? Yeah, I don't miss it.

During my Tuesday morning run, wearing a pair of Hokas with 500 hard miles and the tread rubbed smooth, I slipped on a particularly slimy patch of mud, skied a good five feet before I finally got my left foot down, promptly rolled the ankle and tumbled into some rocks. Now my right shin has ballooned up nicely. It hurts to put weight on it. It was just a bruise, so I finished up the run, although I'm not sure why. I really hope I can start biking again soon — it's considerably less hazardous for me. I will hopefully know more after my nerve test tomorrow.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Out of the fog

A near-home view of Denver, the city where I was born
I think I've finally emerged from the strange fog I slipped into over the weekend — the fog of becoming dizzy whenever I stood up, feeling fuzzy-headed and tired, and falling asleep unintentionally during the day. In hindsight, a cold virus may have contributed to this condition, but I blamed altitude and the possibility that I pushed my body just a little too hard during our first week in Colorado. I'm not as strong here as I was in California. I may actually acclimate to the elevation before I finally accept that reality.

I was annoyed about dozing off on the floor while working on projects, so I decided to go for a run on Monday evening. Usually when I'm feeling low on power, an outdoor excursion boosts my spirits and my energy levels. Beat was running home from work, so I planned to meet him on the saddle of Green Mountain, about 3.5 miles away. Just getting there proved to be more than I manage — my legs were weak, I became dizzy, and had to sit down on the trail twice to clear my head, even though I was hiking at a relatively low-exertion pace. It was going to be a long hike back, so Beat agreed to run ahead and meet me at the trail junction with the car. While continuing to attempt a jogging pace, I must have looked fairly pathetic, because a fast-moving runner stopped and asked me if I needed company. No, I replied, my boyfriend was coming to rescue me. It was a most horrible run — the kind where you wonder if you're permanently broken.

Tuesday was my appointment with the hand specialist, who basically performed the same examinations that my doctor friends conducted in Nome, then referred me to a physical therapist for a nerve conduction test — just like the one I had in Nome seven weeks ago — one week from now. Any further appointments will likely sprawl out for weeks or even months.

Effectively, I'm in the same position I was in mid-March. I haven't made that many gains in the healing process since then. I do have better dexterity and strength in my hand, but a lot of that is just becoming more adept at working around my limitations — using my ring and pinkie fingers to carry the bulk of the workload, and strongly favoring my left hand, which has led to muscle atrophy in the right. I can't put pressure on my hand without pain, and every so often it sends out sharp electric shocks that cause me to fumble dishes or drop my camera.

To be honest, I'm really frustrated with this injury right now. I acknowledge that it's minor in the scheme of things, but the near-constant low-level pain, its impact on nearly everything I do, and the fact I can't ride bikes, are all beginning to grate on my mood. Beat and I had dinner with Joe Grant Thursday night, and he joined the chorus of long-distance bikepackers who assured me that nerve damage is normal, and one day, suddenly, it's going to feel a lot better. It may take months, but it will happen. Don't get surgery, he urged. I remain a skeptic. To be honest, if I could find a doctor willing to cut into my wrist tomorrow, I'd probably sign on. I also considered deciding that since this injury is never going to heal on it's own, I'm just going to ignore it so I can ride bikes again. But I doubt I could ignore it. I'm too much of a sissy when it comes to pain.

Beat running at Walker Ranch. Can you find him?
I realize this is a whiny blog post. Sometimes it feels good to get these things out, because it's easy to feel guilty about feeling bad when everything is otherwise fantastic. Beat and I love it here in Boulder so far. We are settling into new routines and relishing the novelty of gazing at stars from our bedroom window and having deer, red fox, and elk for neighbors. There are so many beautiful trails right out the door that I could be a full-time runner here and never miss biking, except for I do.

Today the head fog seemed sufficiently lifted so I ventured out, relishing the warm sun even though my skin was coated in a thick paste of sunscreen — because that's another thing it's going to take to survive at 7,000 feet. But somehow, the miles came effortlessly today. For the first time in Colorado, I didn't feel like there were lead weights strapped to my ankles or a sling tied around my neck. For the first time in Colorado, I almost felt like a runner. Of course, after looping around the trail, I failed the find the turnoff to my own street, and had to take the long way around. All the better.