Sunday, April 21, 2019

Once a runner

"Why am I still trying to be a runner?"

This incredulous question pops into my mind with some frequency, still, as I near the decade mark of my running journey. I don't have a definitive moment when I decided to become a runner, but the first spark of genuine interest developed shortly after I finished the Tour Divide in the summer of 2009. I  wondered "what's next?" and gazed up at the mountains towering over Juneau. Everything beyond the jagged ridges was a mystery — fingers of rock stretching across the Juneau Icefield and beyond. I dreamed about the expanses I could explore in my limited free time, if only I were fast enough to cover the ground.

Unlike most adults who run on a regular basis, I have no running background. I was such an awkward ambler as a child that I failed the Presidential Fitness Test in seventh grade. When you're a striving tween who is given your first "F" because you couldn't break a 12-minute-mile, you're bound to take that failure to heart. Through my teens and twenties, I aggressively despised running. Then I entered a relationship with a man who was a collegiate cross-country star. Burnout led him to drop out of college, and by the time I met him a couple of years later, he was emphatically a non-runner. Several years after that, he picked up snowshoe racing on a lark. This progressed to mountain running after we moved to Alaska, followed by a meteoric rise in the ultrarunning world. I watched his progression to the top of the sport with some bemusement, because to me he was not a great athlete. He was the dude who went hiking and bike touring with me, and I could usually keep up. Maybe, I reasoned, running was not so hard.

He broke up with me before I ever gave running a go, so I can't credit him with much more than making the endeavor look entirely too doable. The Tour Divide led to some burnout with cycling, so after I returned to Juneau, I recruited my friend Abby to show me the ropes of trail running. We'd go out for slow jogs on the Treadwell Ditch Trail and other root-choked but flattish trails around town. Then I signed up for my first real foot race (at least the first one I intended to take seriously), the Mount Roberts Tram Run. The course was four miles up a muddy trail, gaining 1,800 feet. Abby and I lined up, and I asked her if we were going to race together. "Maybe," she replied, then disappeared into the crowd as the race launched. I'd go on to finish, red-lined and on the verge of vomiting, somewhere in the mid-pack, only to learn that Abby had won the race outright. As it turns out, Abby was a former elite cross-country skier. She'd been on track to compete in the Olympics before the pressure got to her and she walked away. She never shared this with me, her rank-beginner yet regular running partner. You might understand how spending all this time with elite athletes when I was young and naive might have skewed my perspective.

My enthusiasm for both running and racing faltered over the next year as I moved from Juneau to Anchorage to Missoula, but the following summer I fell in with another crowd of bad influences. A mutual friend introduced me to a Montana runner named Danni. She and I spent a weekend hiking in Glacier National Park, where I learned she was co-directing an ultra called the Swan Crest 100, slated the following weekend. On a whim I volunteered to help out with Danni's race. At the finish line, I met an enthusiastic Swiss runner named Beat. The rest, as one might say, is history. It becomes a long story to tell, but less than five months later I was in a new relationship and officially an ultrarunner myself, having completed my first 50K, en route to my "ultimate" challenge of finishing the Susitna 100 on foot.

That was early 2011, the start of my own meteoric rise. Although I would never venture anywhere near the top of the sport like Geoff or Abby, I enjoyed a fair amount of personal success early and often, and followed Beat's track of racing a lot. I finished 14 ultras in 2012, including another Susitna 100, UTMB (a shortened 110K course, still hard), and the Bear 100. I knew I would never be anything close to great, but I was still fairly certain I could go anywhere I wanted in this sport. My hubris hit fever pitch in 2013 when I enthusiastically signed up for and attempted La Petite Trotte à Léon. This spectacular DNF was the beginning of a slap-down that I might argue has continued, on some level, ever since.

"Why am I still trying to be a runner?" The angry voice echoed as I pulled myself up off the rocks and brushed dust and blood from my shin. It's @$%* 2019 and I'm still slapping the @$*! ground with some regularity. My crashes only seem to become more frequent as time goes by. I feel like I'm locked in a steady state of impact injuries, compounded by the embarrassment of being a middle-aged woman with scabbed knees and bruised arms. If tripping and hurting myself were the only indignities I had to endure, I could probably accept them. But I continue to rack up emotional failures as well. The reason I was out here on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, pushing my legs up the Betasso Link as fast as they'd climb until I lost control, is because I simply want to finish the Bryce 100 in three weeks. If I can manage this, it will be the first non-winter "A" race I'll have completed since I last finished the same race in 2013. In six years, my only breakthrough successes came from Alaska. And there were a lot of failures to fill in the gaps.

I write this as a confessional toward the deep emotional investment I've made in just finishing the Bryce 100, while simultaneously considering the endeavor to be foolhardy and a waste of time. Bryce is a beautiful course, and sure to be a memorable adventure regardless of the outcome. But I'm approaching the race with too much resentment and too little love. I've had ten years to become a runner, and feel the indignation of still being the same awkward ambler that I was in seventh grade, striving for a bare minimum that I might not meet.

It's been a tough week of training. I've posted about how my breathing has been good and overall I'm feeling strong, and that's still true. This week I pushed the volume; I wanted to log 20 hours of moving time, as I did in each of the two main training weeks leading up to the White Mountains 100. I managed 20 hours and then some with two weight-lifting sessions, 61 foot miles with 11,000 feet of gain mainly on dirt and technical trails, and a 53-mile road ride that had 5,300 feet of gain but actually was all enjoyment and no punishment, and did lead me to again ask myself why am I spending all this time trying to be a runner??

Beat and I logged our weekly long run in Golden Gate State Park on Saturday. Twenty-five miles with 6,000 feet of climbing, much of that on technical and rocky terrain. It turned out to be a bit early in the season for these trails. Most of the shady and north-facing areas were packed with snow and ice, with varying degrees of slipping and post holing. After my fall on Wednesday, I developed a little bit of what I call "trail vertigo," for lack of an official term. I was feeling wobbly, uneven, and vaguely dizzy for much of the run. To be fair I'd felt this way even before I took that hit. I think it's just something that comes on when I'm more fatigued. In the past couple of years I've associated my proprioception issues with poor breathing and low blood oxygen, but I had no breathing difficulties this week. I felt strong on the climbs, but weak and lightheaded on the descents. A friend visiting from North Dakota joined us for the final eight miles, and it was a nice distraction — slogging through shin-deep snow while talking about sled-dragging and layering for 30 below. These challenges are all well within my comfort zone. Trail running, on the other hand ...

So I ponder what, exactly, I'm trying to achieve. Way back in 2013, when I was arguably near the peak of my running success, I decided I didn't really love bike racing. Unless it was some sweeping adventure, such as the Race Across South Africa, the Tour Divide or the Iditarod Trail, I just didn't have the fire to focus on competitive cycling. Instead I wanted to ride bikes for fun, and test my limits in a way that was consistently difficult and enlightening — running. It is difficult to reconcile this zeal with the reality that there's absolutely nothing about running that comes naturally to me, and experience has arguably worsened my abilities as confidence continues to erode, and things actually could just keep getting worse, until I finally quit.

A hundred miles is a long way, and there's a lot of time for any number of issues to crop up that I might not be able to fix. It's silly and foolhardy to place so much pressure on my performance in this one race with which I already don't have a great history. Still, a success at Bryce, even the bare minimum, would be enough to justify positive answers to that nagging question ... why am I still trying to be a runner?

I have one more week of focused training before the taper. Hopefully I can get through it without meeting the ground yet again. 
Sunday, April 14, 2019

Clinging to winter

April is a gift that keeps on giving. That is, with the exception of tax day, when most of my disposable cash is set to be removed from my bank account. (I know; I could budget for this better. I just prefer to have some sort of excessive adventure like living in Nome for a month, then pay the piper when the time comes.) Beyond the small bout of pain that is April 15, this brief but blissful season of effortless PRs and snowy spring adventures continues.

The weather this week was volatile, with high winds, then rain, then snow, then more strong wind. Conditions weren't conducive to (fun) cycling, so I stacked the week with quality foot training. I'm recommitting to weight training and trying to hit the gym twice a week, but on Monday I managed to squeeze in a quick jaunt to Sanitas before the errands and iron pumping and allergy shots that usually leave me couch-bound (or wishing I was) for the remainder of the day. 

Mount Sanitas has become one of those routes that I hit about once a month, so I always try to climb as fast as I can, as a sort of "fitness test." The last time I ran Sanitas was Feb. 20, a couple of days before we left for Alaska. That effort went so poorly, with rough breathing and my slowest time since the "sick days" of 2017, that I actually became a bit weepy on the peak. I blamed these tears on "slump hormones," because my slumps dredge up as many overwrought emotions as they do breathing difficulties. Since I have nothing tangible on which to blame a multitude of symptoms (rash, insomnia, anxiety ... the list extends far beyond slow running) — hormones it is. 

Anyway, my April 8 Sanitas climb was fantastic. I spent three years trying to ascend the little mountain in under 30 minutes, and finally did it this past December in 29:55. Then, like clockwork, four months later I tagged the summit with 28:48 on my watch! 

On Wednesday, everyone along the Front Range was anticipating the second "bomb cyclone" of 2019. I missed Colorado's first round of explosive cyclogenesis while I was in Alaska, but gleaned much entertainment from reading breathless media reports and underwhelmed Twitter commentary while I cowered indoors amid a violent whiteout/windstorm that's just a typical Wednesday in Nome. I was glad to be around for this storm. Still, after the Santias PR and a solid sprint during my routine Tuesday run, I was more interested in putting in another fast effort than slogging around in wet snow à la Alaska. So I timed my run three hours ahead of the forecasted snow, setting out when the weather was still a friendly 35 degrees with wind and rain.

I did manage a good push for my four-mile route along the west ridge of Green Mountain, missing my December (2017) PR by less than a minute. The rain switched over to snow just as I was nearing the peak. Less than 15 minutes later, there was a solid half inch covering the trail. Snow continued to accumulate rapidly as I worked my way down my loop, soaked to the skin but warm enough as blissfully hard running continued to pump out heat. Within an hour there were nearly two inches of heavy snow blanketing the ground, and my motions had become much more slog-like. But no matter. I was still pretty stoked on the blizzard.

Thursday dawned cold and gorgeous, with six to eight inches of new snow. I had hoped to take my fat bike for a spin, but wet snow falling onto warm ground made for such a sloppy mess that I couldn't stomach the notion of pedaling through mud-swirled Slurpee. Beat was working from home that day, so we set out for my usual Tuesday run in the afternoon. He promised to coach me to a PR, and in doing so set a hard pace on the climbs and easy-going pace on the descents. I nearly maxed out while shadowing him through the sloppy mud, but surprised myself by keeping pace.

"When my breathing's good, nothing feels all that hard; it's strange," I panted when the pace became remotely conversational during a mile-long descent. Minutes earlier, I was running my heart rate near 175, on the verge of puking, and that was not remotely easy. But it is eas-ier than anything I attempt when I'm feeling wheezy, including and especially that sad Feb. 20 slog up Sanitas.

As promised, Beat did coach me to a PR — nearly a minute faster than my previous best, which isn't trivial for a run I do on a near-weekly basis. The PRs were stacking up, and I was feeling mighty.

Since I'd done all of this hard running during the week, I convinced Beat we should go for a fun outing on Saturday — snowshoeing at Brainard Lake. We'd aim for Mount Audubon if conditions were conducive, but otherwise just happily tromp along in the snow for five or six hours. Both of us had more or less put "winter" behind us when we came home from Alaska. My gear needed to be excavated from the boxes where I'd stashed it for summer storage. But we came prepared for full winter conditions — the Continental Divide had also been slammed with new snow this week, and Saturday's high temperature at the trailhead was forecast to be 25 degrees.

We wiled away the morning hoping for clearing skies that never quite materialized. It was 1:30 p.m. and still snowing heavily when we finally set out from the winter trailhead. Beyond Brainard Lake the route became tricky, with erratic and windblown ski tracks that didn't seem to head toward Audubon. We decided to trace the summer route as well as we could, which forced us to break virgin trail in heavy snow as we wound through the woods. It was hard, thirsty work, and the weather was January fearsome with temperatures in the teens and winds gusting to 35 mph. Low clouds and blowing snow streamed along the ridge.

An Audubon summit was not going to happen on this day. Such an attempt would have been high on the epic scale, with hours of full exposure to the fierce wind and cold, and a slow and difficult pace that would have kept us hiking well after dark. Perhaps we would have motivated if we were here before our trip to Alaska ... but Beat had already had more than his share of high wind adventure during his night and day in the Solomon Blowhole, and I spent nearly a month on the wind-swept Bering Sea coast, so ... we're wintered out, I suppose. We were happy to climb to a nice viewpoint, take a look, and turn around.

The formidable Mount Audubon. Perhaps we'll motivate for another snowshoe adventure with more time to spare next week. Or perhaps we'll settle into the speedy ease of the season and find somewhere warm and dry to run.

Wind and blowing snow continued to batter us on the way down. Beat was having trouble with his snowshoes that required several stops to fix, and I had to bundle up in most of my extra layers. I was, perhaps, willing to admit that I'm ready for spring.

I continue to place excess emotional importance on my ability to finish the upcoming Bryce 100. As such, I was resolved to put in at least a four-hour run on Sunday, and actually convinced Beat to do the same (he'll perform well at the race no matter how much or little he trains between now and then, and he and I both know it.) In order to avoid mud and slush conditions, we settled on a double loop around Walker Ranch — clockwise to start, then doubling back and running counter-clockwise for the return.

I just assumed I'd continue to feel great as I had earlier in the week, but the difficulty of the snowshoe slog weighed heavily on my legs. I was off to a slower start, and then we hit the fearsome West Wind. Wind gusts were hitting 50 miles an hour (as recorded by our weather station at home.) We crossed an open area running due west, and I couldn't breathe. The wind seemed to rip the air away from my mouth before I could draw it into my lungs. Meanwhile, the headwind pushed back so forcefully that I could barely walk, let alone run, and continued to stagger forward with my nose pointed at the ground so the wind wouldn't blow the hat off my head (but it did anyway, multiple times.) I felt a little despondent, as I do whenever I have difficulty breathing. But Beat told me that the wind made him feel exactly the same, and he struggled with breathing just as much.

This first Walker loop was much more difficult than last week, and then we had to do another. My legs felt heavy but my breathing remained manageable, and I had a fair amount of energy thanks to a bottle full of Beat's hummingbird food. (After my difficulties taking in food during the White Mountains 100, I've committed to using liquid nutrition during the Bryce 100 — even though I strongly dislike most drink mixes that I've tried. Beat's solution, a flavorless mix called Maurten, is pretty much straight-up sugar water, but with a magical gel that infuses long-lasting energy without gut distress. It made me wince when I first started using it, but now I appreciate its non-offensive non-taste.)

We completed our run with 17.5 miles and 4,000 feet of climbing. These are rocky trails — not my strength — and I took the downhills slowly to keep my no-tripping streak in tact. The wind continued to kick my ass, and I finished the four hours feeling pretty wrecked. But it's a good thing — if I didn't push a few boundaries, I wouldn't have as much mental strength to apply to my upcoming race.

A successful week of training, all around.
Sunday, April 07, 2019

April ... not the cruelest month

Every March, Beat and I more or less put our lives on hold to frolic in Alaska. By April, we have a lot of catching up to do. Life maintenance adds so much busyness to these weeks, and they begin to overwhelm. Today marks two weeks since the White Mountains 100, and it already feels like it was months ago. Both in mind in body ... happily in body, because I'm already back in training for my next (and possibly last) race of the year on May 17, the Bryce 100.

My first run post-White Mountains 100 was the following Saturday. We had just returned to Boulder late Thursday evening, and had barely settled in when we were slammed by several inches of snow. I'm always grateful for the way Colorado eases the transition away from winter by sprinkling a few good snowstorms in with the 80-degree days, sometimes far into May. Our snowy late-March Saturday was lovely but made for slushy, muddy conditions along the dirt road. Despite being only about five days out from the hundred-mile race, my legs felt springy, and I didn't even notice the altitude. We took a five-mile route that I run often enough to use as a gage of fitness. Despite the tough surface conditions, the pace still came in above my "all-time average."

On Sunday we climbed to Bear Peak. Beat barely missed a beat (ha) following his thousand-mile march across Alaska. I can remember the days when the ITI left him feeling tired for a few weeks, but now he's just raring to go again. I couldn't keep up with him on this outing.

The new snow made for lovely scenery. When we reached the peak, there were about eight other people up there, and I noticed Beat suddenly seemed anxious. Lingering only long enough for me to take one photo, he turned and started jogging back down the trail. I rushed to catch up and asked, "Too many people?" "Yeah," he replied. This is possibly the toughest part of the Iditarod Trail transition — after weeks of solitude, returning to these lands of human congestion (which describe nearly every place, relative to the Iditarod Trail.)

My friend Betsy was preparing her own Alaska adventure beginning Tuesday, but on Monday we managed to connect for a morning of fat biking at Brainard Lake. I'd believed the season for packed trails at moderate altitudes would be over by the time I returned from Alaska, so this opportunity was a pleasant surprise. And since it was April 1, I no longer needed all of those warm clothes that I had to schlep around in Alaska.

So, imagine the less-than-pleasant surprise of arriving at the trailhead to a temperature of 25 degrees with a blasting 30 mph wind. Whoa – it was just like Nome, except for at 10,000 feet, so it's even harder to breathe into the wind. The windchill was breathtaking even as I stood still in the parking lot. I dug through the car for any warm layers I could scavenge, then walked over to Betsy's vehicle.

"It's so much colder than I thought it was going to be!" I exclaimed. "I thought it was spring."

A nearby couple, who I'd observed bundling up in at least six layers as they prepared to go snowshoeing, replied, "April Fools."

Betsy and I weren't ideally prepared, but we agreed to attempt at least one lap. We climbed the wind-exposed and snow-covered road, battling dynamic snow drifts — as quickly as the drifts formed, they were whisked away, creating a strange effect that I'd liken to crashing through breaking waves. A ground blizzard raged around us, and it wasn't even snowing — somewhere overhead there was sunshine and blue skies. But down here, all was frozen in chaos.

I became chilled despite the tough climb, but as soon as we veered into the forest on Waldrop, we discovered a dreamland of muted wind and solid trails. As Betsy described it, "Whitetrack Bliss." The rolling descent was so fun that we again braved the awful ground blizzard of the road — which despite difficulties was the faster way to climb — for a go on the Snowshoe Trail. Betsy ran out of time and headed home, but I was having so much fun that I returned for a third climb and descent, again on Snowshoe. Such riding is rare in Colorado — narrow mountain trails, winding tightly through the forest, dipping in and out of steep drainages, and 100 percent free of rocks. Real flow trail. I was in heaven.

By Wednesday I decided I was ready for some real running, and headed up Green Mountain from the main trailhead. I hit the steep "stairs" on Saddle Rock, where the familiar march felt relatively effortless. "Oh course, because April," I thought ... which I realize is about as meaningful an explanation as "because reasons." I've written here before about these strange sort of "biorhythm" cycles I experience, and acknowledge that they make no medical sense and are probably a result of placebo effect. But wow ... every four months, my breathing really improves, and it doesn't seemed to have anything to do with training effect (because I should be fatigued from Alaska) or altitude (because I spent five weeks at sea level, long enough to lose my acclimation.)

It's been interesting to track these supposed cycles via heart rate and performance statistics. My outings during the good weeks often bring higher "relative effort" scores from Strava, even though I feel less taxed during the run, and less fatigued afterward. I'm given the higher score because I spend more time in higher heart rate zones, rather than gasping my way through zone 2. It appears to be the simple effect of being able to supply more oxygen to my blood — for whatever reason — which boosts a higher performance from my body. I continue to dig around for potential causes and solutions for such a cycle, because the bad weeks still suck plenty (although my last period of breathing difficulty, during late February and early March, was relatively short-lived.)

For now, I'm simply enjoying to ease of "because April." Despite soft snow conditions on the upper half of Green, I managed to march up to the peak and touch the plaque with 59:01 on my watch — my first-ever sub-hour for that 2,500-foot climb. Then I lingered on the peak taking photos and texting Beat, so Strava game me 1:04 for the segment. Stupid Strava.

I'm putting good fitness to good use, while acknowledging that I have some lingering muscle and Achilles issues after the hundred-miler. So instead of just ramping up my running mileage, I remain committed to the equal-time cross training that I believe has kept me (overuse) injury free and motivated all of these years (which is another way of saying I like to ride bikes, but not necessarily race them, and while I enjoy racing on foot, I prefer to skip the tedium of focused run training that might actually help me become a better runner.)

Anyway, the road bike is always such a revelation after a winter of fat bike snow slogging. The featherweight bike just pedals itself, and I enjoy a lovely 4,000-foot jaunt up Lefthand Canyon. Of course, once I neared Ward at 9,000 feet, the gusting west wind returned in force, and it became hard for a while, then cold. The ambient temperature couldn't have been much warmer than 45 degrees, and windchill was again fierce. Luckily, after Monday, I would not again be fooled by mountain weather. There was plenty of winter gear in my pack for the long descent along Peak-to-Peak and Highway 7, which is pretty much an hour-long amusement park ride at the highest fun setting. 

So this is where I'm at right now — feeling good, enjoying spring, relishing this first bout of warm weather and drying trails before the next round of snow hits next week. If I felt I had any control over my fitness I'd say I'm well positioned for the Bryce 100 next month, but yeah ... I can't be easily convinced that the way I feel today means anything for a few weeks from now. There's plenty of time (and an encroaching down-cycle) for my breathing to fall apart again.

Still, Beat and I really crushed our three-hour extended Walker Ranch run today. I was feeling so strong that I blasted down the trail toward South Boulder Creek, fast enough that when my foot caught a rock, my split-second reaction was to brace for a world of hurt. That is, until my other foot came down and I launched into a flailing sprint in the direction momentum was taking me — off trail and straight down the mountain — but I embraced that momentum and continued throwing my feet forward into bushes and prickly pear cactus until I regained control and slowed to a stop, incredibly still on my feet.

What a rush — to take a bad fall and yet not fall! No trail rash! No bruises! I feel practically invincible at this point.