Sunday, February 09, 2020

Weather whiplash

We're three weeks out from the Iditarod, which means Beat and I are officially tapering. This final training block since the Fat Pursuit has been disappointing, to say the least. After more than two weeks of a death cold, there hasn't been a lot of time to squeeze in long runs. My gym visits lapsed for too long and I lost a lot of ground; now my twice-weekly weight sessions leave me quite sore the following day. Setbacks are bound to happen in a training effort this long, but I was a little discouraged.

Overall, though, I feel about as healthy and strong as I could hope. When I'm doing the thing I'm training to do, which is dragging a sled through the snow, I feel relaxed and energetic, not overly burdened or bored in the least. It's encouraging enough. It's funny, though, as the Iditarod approaches, I feel increasing reluctance to do anything hard. Go to Niwot Ridge and battle 70 mph winds, or sit at home by the fire? This weekend, I surprised myself by picking the sit-at-home option. I justify this with all of the many things I'm still trying to accomplish in the three weeks I have left. But there's also only so much comfort left, and I want to soak it up. Once February is over, I'm likely to be uncomfortable for a long time. 

Life at home has been interesting enough, as Colorado does its Colorado thing with amusingly bipolar weather. On Groundhog Day - 02022020 Palindrome Day - Superbowl Sunday, Boulder topped out at 75 degrees! We joined our friend Daniel for a real trail run on his home trails in the foothills west of Denver. At least, I showed up believing we were going for a summer-style trail run, because it sure felt like summer. But there was still plenty of ice and snow in the woods and along north-facing slopes, not to mention a lot of slick mud. Beat took a solid digger while we were side-hilling a particularly steep slope coated in bulletproof crust. Just as he was talking about how his shoe studs weren't all that effective and I was thinking about ice axes, both of his feet shot into the air and he landed on one side. After that, I was overly cautious. I slid down one icy chute on my butt. 

And yet, when we climbed up onto another ridge bathed in sunlight and a hundred percent dry, sweat streamed down our foreheads and it was easy to forget that it had ever been winter. I wholly enjoyed this 75-degree day, but running in those temperatures does skirt the edge of uncomfortably hot. 

It's no wonder that the Rocky Mountain marmot saw his shadow on Sunday, and thus no surprise that our six (probably closer to 12) weeks of winter returned with a 63-degree drop in temperature on Monday. It was 12 degrees with 3-4 inches of new snow when I set out to drag a sled from home. I loaded it up with 45 pounds and soon realized that breaking trail through fresh powder with a heavy sled is harder than dragging my 90-pound cart on gravel. When I was about 2.5 miles up the road, a neighbor came through with a plow and made two passes, scraping much of the road down to gravel. Argh. I mean, good for driving. But bad for me in that moment. I opted to veer down a faint old jeep road and make a loop. 

Soon I regretted this decision, because this route is littered with rocks, ruts and down trees that were covered in enough snow to hide them, but not enough snow to insulate against them. My sled was awkwardly weighted with a five-gallon jug of water and a few extra things. It must have tipped over ten times. Each time I had to wrestle with it to turn it over, and I wasn't wearing gloves because I'd been using pogies on my trekking poles. Predictably, my hands started hurting, started burning, went numb ... and still the sled continued to tip over. The hands became a concern. It was only 12 degrees ... definitely frostbite territory if I couldn't warm them up soon. I briefly considered abandoning the sled and coming back for it later, but managed to make my way back to a road, start jogging, and generate enough heat to writhe with screaming barfies most of the way home.

Important lessons were learned — things will go wrong when I don't expect them to go wrong. Always be prepared. And keep some damn mittens in close reach at all times. 

On Tuesday it continued to snow all day. At least, I think it did. It was one of those days where I was locked behind a computer screen for the better part of 14 hours. But Wednesday dawned as the most gorgeous, powdery, bluebird day. It was still quite cold for Boulder — the temperature at dawn was -5F. And it was breezy, with gusts to 40 mph in open areas. So ... yeah, actually it was very cold. Somehow it didn't feel this way when I set out to run to town, breaking trail through ten inches of snow along the relatively sheltered west ridge of Green Mountain. I'd been feeling stressed, and the run was everything I needed to calm down and enjoy being in the present.

"I so love running through the snow," I thought as I splashed through pillows of powder during the descent from Green. "If only I could just do this for a month and nothing else. Oh, wait ..."

It was downright hot again, close to 50 degrees, on Thursday while I ran chores in town and went to the gym. I did not feel like I was missing out on a slush slog. Then on Friday, it snowed again. More than eight inches came with this storm. Ski resorts and mountain passes to the west received as much as 55 inches. I-70 was an utter disaster before CDOT finally shut it down. Lift lines stretched across counties. Front Range avalanche danger climbed to 4 out of 5. Beat stayed home from work because roads in town were such a mess, and we did another sled-drag. This one wrapped up with less drama than Monday, although a neighbor's friend had gotten her car hopelessly stuck in a ditch, and we both separately spent some time trying to push her out. Beat ended up running all the way home (three miles) to return with his truck and plow, then successfully cleared a path to free her car.

Then, on Saturday, it was warm again! Forty-five degrees! Beat insisted on wearing shorts and gaiters for what I expected to be an awful slush slog to Bear Peak. The road was a muddy mess, but the trail was in great shape with mostly packed powder. The people who packed the trail apparently couldn't navigate to save their life. Beat, ever the rule-follower, did not want to tramp over their eroded path through this fragile burned area, so we ended up breaking some of the trail up the west ridge, wading through drifts that often swallowed entire legs. Despite the gaiters, Beat's legs still ended up a little bloodied.

Then, on Sunday, it was 18 degrees and snowing ... again! All of the muddy gravel that we ran on Saturday was covered in six inches of new snow. Most of the Front Range received only trace snow for the entire month of January, so three big storms during the first week of February has been a shock to everyone's system. The wind combined with bad roads and volatile backcountry conditions ultimately kept us away from the mountains, but it was nice to get several things done and go for a short sled-drag in the afternoon.

I was able finally try out my completed sled-pole-harness system, which I filled with most of my planned gear for the Alaska journey, as well as two gallons of water (16 pounds) to mimic the weight of food, fuel, and other things I'm missing. It all felt great. My Nome sled is smooth and has excellent tracking — it's going to take work to tip this thing over. Beat added a canopy to keep snow out, and also to be used as a head piece while sleeping in my sled. It's a great addition. And of course, I made sure Bernadette, my stuffed Siberian Husky, is strapped down so she won't be forgotten. I've been working on finally finishing up the thing I've been writing about the 2018 Iditarod, it it's helped me remember how much Bernadette meant to me when I was tired and alone and had the emotional stability of a 3-year-old.

I'm getting close to finalizing my gear list, so that will probably be my next blog post. If I find the time for one. So much to do! Such stress. February is often the worst month on my personal calendar ... and yet, I don't want it to end. 
Saturday, February 01, 2020

Feeding a 30-day expedition

The start of the 2020 Iditarod Trail Invitational is now less than a month away, which means anxiety is about to double down and my single-minded focus on this event will narrow even further. Gear and prep. Prep and gear. It makes for boring conversation and mundane writing. Of course, I think these subjects are boring, but the general public seems to disagree. Among the 2,000+ posts on this blog, one of the most enduringly popular is a post from 2009 titled "Bikepacking gear," which is so outdated it might as well be titled "Delightable accessories for your velocipede." It still receives thousands of hits each year.

Several folks have expressed interest in learning more about the technical aspects of a 30-day march across Alaska. Since I am not remotely a list-maker in my day-to-day life, an impetus to make checklists and justify my choices benefits me as well. This particular post is going to cover the most specifically individual yet universally debated aspect of such an endeavor — food.

Before I start, I wanted to report that I am no longer dying of the illness I wrote about in my last post. It took more than two weeks to recover even 80 percent of my energy following the onset of this most recent upper respiratory infection, but I hope the severity of it means it's my last for the season (fingers crossed.) I started running again this week, including a 17-miler yesterday where I felt 95 percent of normal — I'm still stuck with a phlegmy cough that rears its ugly head at night and during harder efforts.

On Monday I had my annual follow-up with my asthma doctor, where I failed my breathing test spectacularly. The results were significantly worse than this time last year, enough so that I couldn't fully convince my doctor that I don't have out-of-control asthma. He agreed that the virus was partly to blame, but wanted to try out a couple new medications this month. Since I'm still dealing with lingering chest congestion, I think these medications can only help.

Now, onto food planning. In choosing what food to bring for a month of strenuous exercise in subfreezing conditions, one must consider several important questions:

1. Is it shelf-stable? Some of this food will sit for nearly a month in heated buildings — either post offices or schools — but will likely be exposed to subfreezing temperatures during transport. So it needs to endure a freeze-thaw cycle.

2. Is it calorie-dense? Each resupply box will hold two to five days' worth of food, and everything must be carried until it's eaten. Maximizing the calorie-to-weight ratio is crucial. High-fat foods have the highest calorie density, but many of these are unpalatable (to me at least) during a hard effort. I prioritize carbs, but choose foods with low moisture content, which is also important because:

3. Is it edible when frozen? I won't have the luxury of thawing most of my food. It's nice to have foods that retain similar textures and tastes when frozen — nuts, for example, and chocolate. Dried meats are also good. Gummies need to be "gummed" for a few seconds before they can be chewed, but the flow of sugary goodness makes up for this extra effort. Peanut butter is even more delicious when frozen — it develops a fudge-like consistency. Semi-hard cheeses such as cheddar are terrible in my opinion — like gnawing on tasteless rubber. Hard cheeses such as Parmesan are okay, but a little too strong-tasting for my liking. I've also learned that the degree of freezing matters. An Oreo cookie at 0 degrees is just like any Oreo, but at -40 it becomes difficult to bite or chew until I thaw an entire cookie in my mouth for a few seconds.

4. Is it nutritious? A month is a long time, and bodies in motion have many requirements. I'm not going to pretend that most of my food isn't traditionally junk food, but it still carries important macros and some micronutrients. I plan to supplement with multivitamins and electrolyte tablets, which are probably placebos but don't weigh that much either.

5. Most importantly, will I eat it? During the 2018 ITI, I experimented with a trail diet that was about 80 percent fruit-and-nut trail mix, with limited candy and chips. This didn't work out so well for me — my energy levels were alarmingly low at times, and I think that food intake was part of the problem. My only options were too high in fat and protein, and too low-carb relative to what I am used to eating and what seems to work best for me while in motion. I also packed only about 5,000 calories per day, which turned out to be too few even with supplemental meals. This was probably the case because it got to the point where I could not stomach sunflower seeds, and tossed too many handfuls of trail mix to "the birds" when my stomach turned. Meanwhile, I craved sugar like crazy. It would be nice not to need sugar to this degree, but it's also amazing how well it works. In 2018, whenever I got my hands on something sugary such as hot Tang or another racer's left-behind brownies, it brought instant vitality and energy. I will be carrying candy this year.

Half of my 2018 supply of trail mix was a generous donation from a kind-hearted acquaintance in Iowa — Linda. We haven't yet met, but Linda has long followed the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, read my books some years ago, and has been an enthusiastic fan ever since — not just of mine, but of all of the folks in the human-powered race. She donated trail mix to my successful 2016 ride to Nome. It was such a welcome treat that she sent more in 2017 for a race that unfortunately I didn't end up starting (much of that trail mix went to Beat), and then again in 2018. My mistake in 2018 was doubling her generous contribution with a similar trail mix of my own. By the time I packed it all and realized I was already near the weight limit for each box, I just went with it ... and thus had only trail mix to eat.

This year I'm going for more variety, but I still think nuts and dried fruit are fantastic energy food and a preferred baseline for my trail diet. So I was thrilled when she offered to contribute to yet another extended Nome effort ... so many delicious nuts and fruits. And not a single sunflower seed to be found. She sourced much of it from Natural Grocers because she is so dedicated to healthy living. I have a feeling she won't love the rest of my list. But it's for the best, Linda, really. I believe this is the best balance to answer all of the above questions while combatting my low-energy issues from 2018.

The following is my plan for a typical day on the trail. It's just an approximate list; there will be a number of variations for each individual category and amounts for each day. The total amount will be reduced earlier in the race when there's much more supplemental food. For later boxes, I'll probably increase the amount of protein-rich foods while reducing some of the carby stuff that I'm sure to become sick of, based on my 2016 experience (granola bars are probably going to be gone for good after day 14, and I'll replace oatmeal with dehydrated egg scrambles.)

Breakfast foods:
Instant oatmeal, 3 ounces — 320 calories (4g fat, 66g carb, 8g protein)
Trader Joe’s instant coffee (3), 1 ounce — 150 calories (3g fat, 30g carb, 0 g protein)
Jif-to-go peanut butter (2), 3 ounces — 500 calories (42g fat, 22g carb, 18g protein)

Snacks on the go:
Linda’s wonderful and healthy trail mix, 8 ounces — 1,280 calories (96g fat, 88g carb, 32g protein*)
Jill’s less-healthy-but-includes-delicious-pb-cups trail mix — (dried bananas and cranberries, mini peanut butter cups, salted dark chocolate-covered almonds, pecans) 4 ounces — 630 calories (45g fat, 54g carb, 9g protein*)
Chips or crackers (Cheez-It, Pringles), 4 ounces — 550 calories (30g fat, 63g carb, 11g protein)
Nature Valley bars (2) 2.7 ounces — 380 calories (22g fat, 42g carb, 8g protein)
Candy bars (2), 4 ounces — 500 calories (24g fat, 66g carb, 8g protein)
Cookies (chocolate chip, Oreos, no-bake) 4.4 ounces — 560 calories (32g fat, 64g carb, 8g protein*)
Beef or bacon jerky, 4 ounces — 320-440 calories (8g fat, 1g carb, 11g protein*)
Gummy candies (Haribo varieties, jelly fruit slices or cinnamon bears) 5 ounces — 500 calories (0g fat, 126g carb, 0g protein)
*These calorie and macro numbers are an approximate guess for foods that will be compiled at home or dehydrated at home (oh yeah, Beat bought a food dehydrator! We're just doing jerky this year, but hopefully we'll become more creative in the future.)

Mountain House meal, 5 ounces, 550-800 calories (27g fat, 72g carb, 27g protein)
Tuna packet, 2.6 ounces — 110 calories (4g fat, 0g carb, 18g protein)
Hot chocolate (1-2), 2 ounces — 220 calories (1g fat, 48g carb, 4g protein)

Total: 6,590 calories
54.7 ounces (3.4 pounds)
338g fat, 741g carb, 162g protein
27% fat, 60% carb, 13% protein

Yes, I also feel slightly sick to my stomach when I read this list. Three and a half pounds is a lot of food to carry for each day, but it will be lower than this most days ... some, however, will be full-meal-deal sorts of days. I know I'll operate best if I have a good buffer of energy and don't need to ration food the way I did in 2018. (The rationing came about because we were only allowed to send five pounds of food to the checkpoint in Rohn, which needed to fuel 130 hard miles over three long days and diminished quickly amid my pouty bird-feeding.) There are enough resupply points that I can adjust the amounts as I go ... this isn't nearly as involved as planning for an unsupported Antarctic expedition.

Thirteen percent protein is also lower than I hoped, which is why I think I'll adjust toward more protein later in the race. In 2016, when I had plenty of sugar, the food that I craved like crazy was meat. But I also want to note that this list still includes 162 grams of protein, which is nearly three times the typical daily recommendation. I'm not adjusting my diet to simply eat three times as much as usual — I need ten times the energy. My hope is to be on the move between 12 to 18 hours a day, burning roughly 500-600 calories per hour. If I had 6,000 calories of pure carbs, my body would probably happily incinerate it all ... if it could. Unfortunately most human digestive systems aren't so efficient.

Based on past experience, ~6,500 calories of all three macros is probably the most I'll be able to process in a 24-hour period. But I should feel relatively energized at that level. I'll still probably run a calorie deficit, but it won't be huge. Once those calorie deficits cut too deep, the body starts consuming itself, both fats — of which I have much to spare — but also muscle proteins, which I don't have to spare. Aggressive fat-burning will, at best, cause one to feel downtrodden and tired. At worst, it can be dangerous — a faster route to hypothermia and frostbite, as well as organ failure in extreme cases (cases only become this extreme in unsupported Arctic expedition-type scenarios.) Still, I want to consume most of what I'm burning. I actually don't want to lose a bunch of weight out there, because I know how terrible this will cause me to feel, and how much it will slow me down. Given the limited amount of time I have to reach Nome, I can't afford a steep energy deficit.

So there it is ... my 2020 Iditarod food plan. If you have any questions on suggestions, please leave a comment below. I'll try to answer any questions. I've given this lots of thought and believe food consumption is a highly individual subject, so I'll probably be less receptive to suggestions ... but I never say never. Thanks for reading. 
Sunday, January 26, 2020

Momentum lost

 Monday morning, 12 hours after we finished the Fat Pursuit, we woke up to 18 more inches of snow that fell overnight. U.S. 20, the only road in and out of Island Park, had been closed in both directions with no estimate on when the highway would reopen. We were sharing a rental house with a half dozen other people, and the news that we were snowed in did not incite panic until we realized there was no more coffee in the house. Never mind that we also had no real food. Coffee was the real emergency. We made our way over to a nearby convenience store.

"Last time they closed 20 in both directions, it took a week to reopen," the store owner casually observed. I filled a 32-ounce jug with brewed coffee and bought them out of refrigerated burritos.

I hadn't slept well on Sunday night — my lungs were filled with gunk and I was up most of the night coughing. Still, despite having only slept a grand total of five hours in three days, I felt surprisingly okay. My quads weren't shredded as I'd expected them to be. My back and shoulders were hardly sore. My feet were in near perfect condition. My head was a muddled fog of sleep deprivation and my short-term memory was shot, but if I was forced to walk another 30 miles that day, I probably could have done it. This seemed a good place to be in terms of fitness for Nome.

Of course, I was grateful that no one was forcing me to walk 30 miles that day. Instead, I thought I'd get to spend the whole afternoon eating burritos, drinking coffee and swapping trail stories with my fellow storm refugees, several of whom finished the 200K course on bikes late the previous evening. But I forgot that my housemates weren't children relishing in an unexpected snow day; they're adults who had everywhere else to be. The house was filled with a low-energy panic, fretting, and a mass exodus when a short weather window opened.

A rumor spread that highway patrol was letting nonresidents who were stuck in the area travel south on the closed road. Beat and Daniel left first, followed by the 200K bikers, and then Danni wanted to go ... she was my ride to my car. The weather window looked tight ... yet more snow was on the way and it did seem possible we could get stuck here all week. Reluctantly, I packed up my uneaten burritos, and Danni and I made a run for it. She dropped me off at my car, which was again completely buried with snow, and we caravanned down the closed highway. The road was icy and eerily empty, with blowing snow obscuring visibility. A liter of coffee did little to slice through my brain fog, and I was convinced my own vision was blurring. It didn't feel remotely safe. The radio warned of more closures south on I-15. I made it as far as Idaho Falls and booked a hotel room.

 I managed to score more coffee and stayed awake as long as I could to finish up some work, which continued as I made my way farther south on Tuesday — driving for an hour, pulling over somewhere to work and drink caffeinated beverages for a couple of hours, repeat. My plan all along had been to return home via Salt Lake City so I could visit my family, because I have that thing in Alaska on the horizon and ... you know ... you never know. Sometime during a fitful sleep between Monday and Tuesday, congestion really clamped down and I couldn't stop coughing. I pulled over at a Subway and succumbed to a coughing fit as I was trying to order a sandwich. I had to run outside, nearly threw up, and then I was so embarrassed that I just left.

By the time I reached my parents' house, my voice was gone. I couldn't even regale them with the story of my race, which was endlessly frustrating. My mother rushed to heat up soup and set up a humidifier as my dad dug any possible flu remedy out of the medicine cabinet. I have to say, if you're already recovering from a 100-mile foot race and catch a virus on top of that, it's pretty wonderful to be in a spot where mommy can take care of you.

 I really thought this was just a simple cold — a few days' worth of laryngitis and coughing, and then I'd be fine. It may have turned out that way if I wasn't exposed to it while my immune system was suppressed by the Fat Pursuit effort. I also probably made some poor decisions with the stressful drive followed by a Wednesday morning outing, snowshoeing with my dad. But what can I say? I took Nyquil and slept like the dead for 10 hours, and when I woke up I felt amazing. My legs were a bit stale, but they didn't hurt at all. My voice was still gone, but the cough seemed to have loosened up some. And it was a most beautiful day in the Wasatch Mountains — bluebird skies, fresh snow, calm air and pleasant temperatures. Dad broke trail through knee- and thigh-deep powder along these steep side slopes that made me nervous, but he's been here many times before. I wasn't at my peppiest, but I didn't feel too bad. I was certain this was going to be a quick recovery.

On Thursday morning I opted to head home a day early, to try to beat another big winter storm that was forecast to sweep across Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. I didn't really start to feel bad until the drive was nearly over. But my condition made a significant turn for the worse on Thursday night, and by Friday I struggled to get out of bed. Walking up the stairs, I felt like I was carrying a massive pack up Mount Everest, struggling to breathe through blocked airways.

For the next week I grappled with one of the worse upper respiratory infections I've experienced ... coughing so much that the muscles in my chest and abdomen were wracked with pain, propping up my thousand-pound head on multiple pillows so I wouldn't drown in sputum, dosing with Nyquil just so I could sleep fitfully beside piles of tissue, and generally feeling like my world had ended, like I'd never be healthy again. Oh well; I had a good run while it lasted. Please spread my ashes on Lone Peak.

That over-exaggerated but still real despair also tore into any confidence I'd gleaned from Fat Pursuit. "Sure, I finished okay, but if a mere hundred miles could take me out so completely, what hope do I have for anything more?" I wasn't so bothered by the fact I couldn't exercise for a week ... I've been at this multiday endurance stuff a long time, and I understand well that once I'm about five or six weeks out from a big event, the buildup window has mostly closed. I was, however, alarmed by the sudden and near-complete helplessness. It became clear how fragile I am, and how weak I can be once this thin veneer of experience and determination peels away.

Similar to everything that has happened over the past few months, I tried to turn it around and determine what I've learned. Interestingly, this illness brought the same lessons I learned from a mud-caked ride outside Fruita in November, when my bike bogged down in wet clay and I had to carry and drag it through slippery slime for most of four miles. The death mud taught me humor in the face of frustration and rage, and it also taught patience. I must accept that this is just how it's going to be sometimes — I am going to be hopelessly bogged down and forward motion will seem impossible. But because forward motion is the only choice — in death mud, in death colds, and in life — I just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. If it's not going to immediately kill me, then it's endurable. And if it's endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining.

Finally, today — two weeks past the Fat Pursuit — I felt well enough to join my friends Cheryl and Kate on a Sunday morning fat bike ride on the Sourdough Trail. My chest and abdomen are still deeply sore from all of the coughing, so I haven't been able to muster for a run. But this was a good prompt to get back on a bike after two full months away. Yes, I haven't ridden a bike since I rolled to the finish of my White Rim tour in November. I have no regrets. This was an important period of buildup for Idiatrod prep. My lack of pain during the Fat Pursuit was a testament to solid conditioning, which can only be earned by hard time on my feet.

Still, it was fun to get out in the snow today. It was very windy — it's always windy here — but the 35-degree temperature felt downright summer-like in the sun. I'm still dealing with congestion and tried to keep a low-effort pace, to be nice to my lungs — easier said than done on a narrow, off-camber and steep rolling trail that is often inundated with snow drifts. My heart rate spiked on a few of the climbs, but it was good fun. It felt like my strength and energy was finally returning. I realize I've only been sick for two weeks, but this was still a relief.

It has been a dizzying shift of momentum, in the span of a mere two weeks, to go from a hundred miles of hard sled pulling, to barely able to climb the stairs without feeling faint, to spinning comfortably in the saddle after a two-month break. Life changes quickly. I am grateful for it all, really.