Monday, March 01, 2021

Slog therapy

Since my recent bout of anxiety, recovery has been moving slowly. Mornings have been the worst. I wake up feeling strung out, as though something bad happened overnight and I can’t quite remember what it is. The morning coffee ritual strangely calms this surge of adrenaline, dissolving it into irritability that takes some focus to control — if I let down my guard, I’ll snap at Beat for no reason, and then feel guilty about it. 

By afternoon, my mind has settled into a more manageable flatness. I also call this state “beigeness” or lethargy. But it’s not fatigue, per say. It’s more like an emotional languor, an inability to access the usual joys and pleasures I take for granted when I’m not, well … depressed? I’m loathe to use that term, but this is probably what it is: a relatively mild and manageable cycle of anxiety and depression. These negative emotions aren’t anchored in any current reality that I can understand, as is usually the case with the many flavors of this condition. Things are improving, as they always do, but I sure wish I could expedite the process. 

I did go looking for biological scapegoats. I had my thyroid levels tested and learned that not only am I not hyperthyroid, I’m actually drifting father toward the hypothyroid spectrum. My T3 index is on the low end of the normal range, my T3 uptake is low, and my TSH spiked into the every-so-slightly high reference range at 4.52 uIu/mL. Back when I spent time commiserating with fellow sufferers in Graves Disease forums, pretty much everyone warned me to be wary of eventually swinging hypo. “Your body now knows how to attack your thyroid; you can’t expect it to function normally ever again,” was one memorable comment. So I guess I’m going to start tracking my numbers more closely after enjoying a couple of relatively benign years. (I sure had it good in 2019. Too bad I sort of wasted that year of peak physical health and freedom because I didn’t know what was coming.) Still, at least I’m not experiencing any overly concerning thyroid symptoms at the moment. 

 I also learned my asthma is slipping farther toward the “uncontrolled” range. This appointment with my asthma doctor was unrelated to my recent concerns. I didn’t seek it out because I’ve been having anxiety. It was my now-standard two-month checkup to test my lung capacity and adjust my allergy shot and medication strategy. My most recent skin test in July 2020 showed that improvements on my more serious allergies have stalled, and I’m developing sensitivities to new allergens. In addition, my spirometry test results continue to decline despite the fact it’s been winter (not my allergy season) for a while now. On Friday, my doctor detected wheezing in the standard stethoscope exam. This means my airways are likely inflamed most of the time. 

When I consider this, everything does start to make more sense: an irrational but genuine fear of the approaching summer season; bad dreams about wildfires; my recent allergic flare-up — sparked on Feb. 12 during my hard 100K ride in the smog — bringing on a more chronic state of asthma. Breathing difficulties spark anxiety. When I lie down at night I feel slightly short of breath, and this continues throughout the night, causing me to wake up feeling anxious. Later, when my body comes down from prolonged breathing-related anxiety, the “beigeness” follows. It all makes some sense. 

Anyway, this recent diagnosis gives me at least some hope that bringing my asthma under better control will improve everything else. My doctor recommended a new, stronger maintenance inhaler. Unfortunately, many asthma medications are backordered right now since they were found to be effective treatments for COVID (which I’m fine with, really. COVID patients need it more than me.) Still, like the vaccine, I’m not sure when this inhaler will be available to me. For now, I wait. 

Given my desire to avoid any stress that may exacerbate anxiety, shortness of breath, and the tedium of viewing the world through a beige lens, perhaps it’s unsurprising that my physical stamina and adventure motivation have been low. It remains true, though, that repetitive motion and beautiful scenery still release the happy hormones, even when they’re more deeply buried. My current state of mind means this release is fleeting — like a trickle from a pinched pipe rather than a dam burst — but it’s still been worthwhile to get outdoors for slog therapy. Here are a few photos from this week's attempts to “beat the beige.”


A week ago Sunday, I decided to take my fat bike for a ride through the tight web of snowshoe trails surrounding Brainard Lake. I knew before I left the house that it was going to be cold and windy. "I just need to get out of the house," I told Beat. Quietly, I hoped the weather would be even more thrillingly terrible than forecast, because "at least that will feel like something."

The weather was legitimately some of the worst I have experienced outside of Alaska. By the time I set out at 11 a.m., a nearby weather station was recording regular wind speeds above 60 mph, and gusts above 80 mph. In fact, a graph spanning the entire afternoon showed the wind never dropped below 45 mph, not even for a few seconds. Even relatively protected forest corridors were enveloped in a ground blizzard. The temperature hovered between 9 and 11 degrees, which might not sound too cold. But trust me, when the temperature "feels like" -18F, what that means is that it feels like -18F air is being forcibly injected into your body through every tiny opening in your clothing. I'd choose an ambient temperature of -18F over a -18F windchill any day. Brainard Lake is an incredibly popular recreation area, so there were still a fair number of folks out skiing and snowshoeing (I only saw one other cyclist.) I was getting a kick out of all of these fellow "poor souls" who either didn't know what they were getting into when they drove up from Denver, were way more hardcore than most snowshoe-owning Coloradoans would ever receive credit for, or, like me, were purposefully trying to tear through inner malaise with acute discomfort. 

Indeed, I was incredibly grumpy for the first hour of my ride. Fat biking is tedious, the Front Range is a hellhole, everybody out today is a complete idiot and so am I. But the longer the punishment lasted, the better I felt. Even after the water in my bottle turned to slush and prompted me to gulp it all down at hour 2.5, I still stayed out for another two hours, becoming increasingly dehydrated as I explored threads of singletrack. Spindrift would fill in tracks almost as quickly as they were laid down, so I was generally following a soft and cambered trail of fresh ski tracks along precarious slopes. Usually, I don't enjoy riding such technical winter trails because even the slightest handlebar shimmy results in a cold powder plunge and enough flailing that I bruise limbs and rip clothing. But on this day I didn't care much if any of that happened, and I ended up riding reasonably well. Everything tends to go so much better when I can just get out of my own head. 

The prettiest outing of the week was on Thursday, after a storm dumped 8-10 inches of snow at home. I was excited to break out the snowshoes and tromp fresh tracks up to Bear Peak, which is often ridiculously hard in new snow (deep drifts mask the chair-sized boulders that form a staircase to the summit, and it's tough to find footing. Snowshoes arguably just make things harder.) Still, it's such lovely spot for a four-hour, six-mile slog.

After the storm moved out, it was clear for a few hours, but then a thick fog moved in. I was glad about the fog. It infused everything with a soft grayness. Silvery wisps of frost clung to the branches of burned trees. A smooth blanket of snow masked a jumbled mess of rocks. The visual proved soothing, a sort of aspirational state for my own mind. 

Feeling out the route to the summit did prove much more challenging then I remembered. The final pitch covers 0.3 miles of distance and it took me 52 minutes to slog this out, pausing after nearly every step to brush snow from a rock and find the best spot to place my foot. It doesn't get much more tedious than that, but I was glad about the work. It was slow yet physically engaging, simultaneously mindless yet intellectually stimulating. I found myself pondering memories of my grandmother's house and the strange ways that the details are so much richer than memories of my own childhood home. Perhaps I've always struggled with familiarity, filtering it out in favor of novelty. Perhaps this is my weakness. 

The fog started to lift as I climbed, revealing a thick inversion and brilliant sunshine overhead. 

Clouds clearing to the west.

Frosty loveliness. It was much warmer above the inversion, and I didn't even notice that I'd become drenched in sweat despite moving at a snail's pace for nearly two hours.

Looking east toward the plains, still shrouded in fog. When I reached the summit there was only one other track punched into the snow from Fern Canyon and none from Shadow, so Bear Peak wasn't a particularly popular destination that afternoon. I wondered if the people down in Boulder knew how sunny it was up here, and posted something on Facebook just because ... somebody else needed to experience this. It was sublime, which I admit I am still only experiencing as "somewhat brighter than beige." But it's something. 

I climbed back to Bear just before sunset on Saturday. This is the same view toward the plains without the fog. The snow had consolidated and the same route that consumed four hours on Thursday only took a little over two, for much less effort. I was admittedly disappointed. For my brain, there's something special about slogging — efforts that are both difficult and slow, methodical and repetitive, that lull both body and mind into a pleasant numbness. It's not necessarily enjoyable all or even most of the time, but this week, it was perfect. 

Beat was game for a couple's slog on Sunday. This day was the start of the 2021 Iditarod Trail Invitational. Due to COVID concerns in rural villages, this year's race is running as a 350-mile out-and-back to the remote mountain outpost of Rohn, with no 1,000-mile race option. Beat had hoped to plan an Arctic adventure and was less interested in such a route, but he still wavered slightly on the ethical dilemma of travel in COVID times. It's the first year in ten that Beat didn't line up at the start. It's also the longest stretch of time since 2005 that I've been away from Alaska — I'm reminded now that nearly a year has passed. My failed race in 2020 has also been weighing on me ... there's a lot to unpack there. But Beat does not seem to mind missing out. He's been perfectly happy with the familiar and excited about summer. I envy him. I'm working on cultivating a better attitude to boost my mood. 

Anyway, it was his idea to hike to Niwot Ridge on Sunday, our favorite avalanche-safe mountain zone where geographical features funnel some of the strongest winds in the state. The weather forecast was colder but friendlier than the previous week, "only" calling for 10-20 mph winds in Nederland. That usually means 30-50 mph winds on Niwot. You could not climb up here on a day like last Sunday. If it's gusting to 80 mph at Brainard, the hurricane forces up here are almost unthinkable. But if Niwot is "only" gusting to 50 mph, that's about the best you can expect on a winter day on this fabulous ridge.

It was cold. Just 11 degrees at the trailhead. The Brainard weather station recorded single digits. It was probably close to zero at 12,000 feet, and that's before windchill. It was cold. 

My balaclava wasn't quite cutting it, and my windward cheek burned as my lungs started to feel scratchy. That was a concerning sensation, as it might signal as asthma attack, and I'd stupidly left my inhaler to freeze in a backpack pocket (I stuffed it down my bra after I thought of this, just in case.) These are things I'm worrying about just a little bit more since my most recent lung test, even though cold air isn't usually a trigger for me. Blah. Luckily I still had that fleece buff to pull over my face, and that seemed to do the trick. 

Blowing snow over the Continental Divide. Beat and I were both reasonably well-dressed, and once I solved the frozen cheeks and lungs issue, I wasn't uncomfortable. But the white fury is mentally difficult to endure, and even more difficult to choose to endure voluntarily. We tagged a high point on the ridge and skedaddled downhill. 

So this is where I am today — a skedaddle that looks and feels more like a trudge. I'm trying to move beyond the cycle of anxiety and depression, but I admit it keeps pulling me back in. I intend to do more slogging this week, perhaps jump back on my bike or trainer to see whether I've found some of the stamina I lost, spend more time on this writing project that brings me peace when I can focus on it, listen to good audio books, and track the Iditarod Trail Invitational but maybe not too obsessively, as there are admittedly triggers there. I know there is light at the end of this tunnel if I keep on trudging. 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Out of the depths

I want to talk about anxiety. 

It’s a common issue, considered the most common mental health disorder in the world, and is thought to affect about 4 percent of the global population. It’s much more widespread in the United States, affecting 40 million — or 18 percent of Americans. Why has anxiety become so prevalent? Lots of theories. Social media addiction, poor lifestyle habits, excess stress, artificial lighting, underreporting in the past, lowered stigma, etc. Uncontrollable risk factors include genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events. Nearly every human is exposed to one of these factors, but not everybody considers anxiety to be a negative force in their life. 

Where does this negative force tip the scale from “stressed out” to “generalized anxiety disorder?” I can’t answer this question, because personally, I don’t consider stress and anxiety to be directly related. Stress can exacerbate anxiety, but it doesn’t cause anxiety. So what causes anxiety? This week, more than any other week in my life so far, I feel I am nowhere near to finding an answer. 

Where does it start? Genetics and personality, most likely. I was a mildly anxious child who enjoyed some respite as a self-assured if brooding teenager. In early adulthood, I started pursuing adventure and absorbed a few traumatic experiences that I believe shaped the trajectory of my outdoor life. These experiences include becoming trapped under a raft after it flipped during a whitewater rafting trip, cowering next to boulders near the summit of the highest mountain in Utah as an electrical storm raged overhead, sprinting down an inescapable slot canyon during a heavy rainstorm, and becoming lost for several hours and nearly running out of water during a hike in the desert. 

These were all valuable learning experiences for a 21-year-old who was just starting to explore the scope of her outdoor passion. But in the months that followed that formative period — the spring of 2001 — I noticed that I felt considerably more frightened in situations that hadn’t bothered me in the slightest just months earlier, such as vertical exposure. I started to have “freak-outs” at inopportune times, such as being caught in a July snowstorm on the wrong side of an exposed ridge below Mount Borah (this is a legit scary situation, but the panic was most unhelpful.) 

More generalized anxiety rose out of these depths during what was also a rough patch in my personal life: the summer of 2002. But it didn’t follow my worst fears; it was triggered by what I considered at the time — and still do — some of the dumbest scenarios. I had a panic attack during a thunderstorm even though I was inside my house at the time. I had another panic attack when I awoke one night and realized I’d left my bedroom window open while Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper was still at large (I lived a few blocks away in Salt Lake City at the time.) I wasn’t actually afraid of a window kidnapper or being struck by lightning on my couch. These were just random triggers, sparking a stress reaction that spiraled out of control. 

These incidents, among a few others in my “poison summer,” convinced me I had a problem. I believed my only two choices where to either be terrified of everything all of the time, or pull myself up by the boot straps and charge toward fear head-on. The summer of 2002 was when I decided to take up cycling and dove headlong into adventure by bike, completing a two-week-long, 600-mile tour by September. I was certain I’d cured myself. I could be fearless as long as I told myself it was so — “be brave, be strong.” 

I’ll have to fast-forward here, but that’s basically how I comported myself until the summer of 2015, when I got sick during the Tour Divide. It’s been a different sort of mindset since, now that I realize I definitely do not have all or even most of the control, and I’m not even solidly in the driver’s seat of my own mind. In the ensuing years, I accumulated two decades of life experience. My amygdala absorbed new traumatic events. I lost relationships and long-held assumptions. I gained security and wisdom. I should be a different person than I was then. I am different. But that same spiraling sea monster (this is how I visualize anxiety, similar to the way depression is a black dog) still lurks in the depths. 

A week ago Thursday, I was in a good place. Like everyone else in the U.S., I struggled with the stressors surrounding the pandemic, racial justice, and politics. But even the pessimist in me believes these issues are (at least for now) following a trend of improvement. I’ve been feeling fit and using hard efforts to stoke all of the positive brain chemicals. So I headed out for a hard 100K bike ride. When it comes to physical effort, “hard” is still relative for me. I engage a higher heart rate but I can still walk normally the following day, so how much did I really bury myself? 

Anyway, a few hours later I came down with a runny nose. It was pretty pronounced — a burn-through-half-a-box-of-Kleenex-in-a-night sort of sinus congestion. The air quality had been poor during my ride, so I blamed allergies. I felt fine otherwise but decided to isolate from Beat just in case I’d caught COVID. 

 The following morning, as quickly as it came on, the sinus congestion cleared and I felt mostly fine. Mostly fine … except for weirdly on edge. Like any little thing could set me off. I thought it was just basic irritability and blamed hormones — “that time of the month” sort of thing, even though it wasn’t that time of the month. 

On Saturday we woke up to my favorite type of weather — new snow and deep cold, 11 below zero. I respect how difficult the Polar Vortex has been for many people, but it was a blessing for me — finally, real moisture to put a dent in the drought, snow to add beauty to the drab sameness of pandemic life, and sharp, cold air to stimulate all of the senses. I eagerly anticipated a morning run with Beat. As we geared up, he questioned me about a hydration pack and it deteriorated into an argument. Amid the anger and perhaps remnants of sinus congestion, my respiratory rate spiked and “breathing difficulty” sparked a panic response. As the sea monster surged from its turbulent depths, my adrenaline skyrocketed and my mind went dark. All I could comprehend was running away from the monster. 

I rushed to a spare bedroom where I could lie in the dark in the fetal position and gasp for air. Beat, thinking I was merely annoyed with him, came downstairs about 20 minutes later and found me in this state. He worked to comfort me as I tried anything I could remember — grounding exercises, reciting a list of favorite songs, counting backward from 100 — to reign in the gasping and sputtering. I was frightened, deeply frightened, not only because I couldn’t breathe, but because I’d finally lost it. I’d gone crazy. I did regain control of my breathing, but by the time it happened, it was as though the monster had already clenched its jaws around me and drained my blood. I felt like I had never been so exhausted — not when I ran 100 miles that one time, or any of the times I ran 100 miles, or anything I ever did to pull my own bootstraps and prove I was brave and strong. 

I laid in the dark for a while longer and then decided I could do my mental health some good if I just got up and went for a walk. I was so exhausted that I would only commit to 15 minutes of walking. It would take me longer to get dressed for the subzero weather. But I got dressed anyway and ended up staying out for two hours. I felt weirdly blank. Not cold, not tired, not angry, not stressed, not relieved, not joyful. Just sort of … nothing. My life force was, in fact, emptied. 

My week since has largely been a lot of this: recognizing my exhaustion, trying to be gentle on all systems to encourage recovery, trying to enjoy the one week of cold weather we were probably going to see this season by getting out for walks, all while feeling baffled by my incapacity for joy. As a calming mechanism, I read a lot of Mary Oliver's poetry and even cried because I felt like I lost that part of myself — the self who never failed to find pure astonishment in the natural world. Meanwhile, as my body rebuilds cortisol and adrenaline, I’ve noticed that I feel “on edge” again. My respiratory rate and heart rate spike when I encounter tiny stressors. I’m terrified the monster will clamp down again, so I avoid anything that might cause unnecessary stress, including hard efforts while exercising. I dutifully keep my heart rate in zone one or two while slogging through shin-deep snow, reminding myself that I love this cold and snowy world. I know I love it on an intellectual level, but feeling this love is another thing altogether. 

It’s been a week since my panic attack and things are improving. I no longer feel deeply upset immediately upon waking up. I’m a little less irritable, a little closer to feeling joy again. I’m a lot less exhausted — my energy levels are almost normal, and I completed a moderately strenuous 90-minute effort on my bike trainer today without fallout. My attention span lengthened enough to read things longer than Mary Oliver poetry and start writing again … although this blog post honestly is the first remote success I’ve had with the effort. It’s difficult to talk about anxiety, but at the same time I feel the need to talk about it. As I repeated to myself multiple times while trying to reign in my panic attack, I rode my bicycle across Alaska alone in the winter once, for crying out loud. But the thing I fear the most is my own mind. 

Searching for answers — a reason not to fear — will be a difficult and possibly never-ending journey. My therapist believes in reconciling past traumas, which is why I’ve been thinking about the spring of 2001, among others. Since my Graves Disease diagnosis, I’ve wondered if there’s an autoimmune component to “flare-ups” of anxiety — that might allow me to pin blame on the short-lived sinus infection for this particularly inexplicable episode — but the autoimmune theory doesn’t have a lot of support outside the functional medicine realm. I plan to get my thyroid levels checked next week, as hyperthyroidism does have a direct link to anxiety. I’ve resolved to “take it easy” for a while, just in case I’ve been inadvertently overtraining and thus overstressing my body. I’ve made an effort to return to the meditation practice that I so dutifully cultivated last spring. 

I just want to feel joy again. To breathe deeply without fear that I’ll lose my breath. I believe I’ll get there, but I have to admit this has been one of my most difficult weeks in a while. The worst part about it is that it’s been difficult for no reason at all. There was no real challenge to overcome. There’s no satisfaction behind me, no reward in the future. It’s all drudgery, although perhaps I’ll emerge on the other end having learned something important, or gained a new appreciation for what I already have. 

 As Mary Oliver wrote, “so long as you don’t mind a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life that doesn’t have its splash of happiness?”
Friday, February 12, 2021

I'm here live. I'm not a cat.

As we near one full year of pandemic life, I feel a deepening sense of living in a sort of ancillary reality. Like the before times, I still spend some of the day wading into the murky past, collecting seashells of memories for writing projects. But now so many of the remaining hours are immersed in a present that feels similarly distant — filtered through the many platforms of the internet, gathering outrage and grief as it floats past. I express condolences to a neighbor by e-mail because I know how inappropriate it would be to show up at their door. But I cringe when friends propose social hours on Zoom — why even bother? That meeting could easily be an e-mail. I even took some of my cycling online, thanks to Zwift. While I truly enjoy the Zwift and won't apologize for that, I ponder how this activity might contribute to increasingly blurred lines. 

Now that my days are filled with waking dreams, my sleeping subconscious has become increasingly visceral. Recent anxiety nightmares have taken the shape of tight lungs and a blackened sky. I'm walking on a dirt road, watching dark ash fall around my face, and struggling to breathe. Beat tells me I've started to snore during the night, which makes sense. I'm genuinely dreading summer — the fire season with its smoke and destruction and evacuation alerts. Air quality so poor it leaves me wheezing after a few minutes of strenuous exercise. My world already feels somewhat disconnected and insular, and now summer is coming. The season in which I can't even go outside. 

I know this view is overblown, but it's hard not to think in extremes these days. We're programmed with reactive attention spans. A choose-your-own-reality culture of viral memes and scrolling has us retrained in ways we don't really understand. We can't keep up. Our thoughts become garbled. We reach for strands of truth, only to watch them evaporate in an instant. So we reach for the next thing that comes up on the screen, the next shiny object in the rapid-fire news cycle.

When I set out to find a career in the late 90s, I chose journalism because I believed in its permanence. Observe the experiences of my community and record them for prosperity — truly a noble purpose. Now I understand that truth won't prevail simply because there's no market for it. Many humans will believe in Lizard People and space lasers while decrying decades of scientific research. And anything we create can evaporate as quickly as a Tweet. Just yesterday, I learned that shortly after new owners took control of the Juneau Empire in 2017, the Web site transfer was mismanaged and the entire digital archive was erased. More than a decade's worth of investigative reporting, cultural events, creative essays — poof. Out of curiosity, I plugged one of my old outdoor columns into the Wayback Machine and found I could still access it, but only because I had the URL saved. There's no way to search those old articles, no way to research those pieces of Juneau's history, no archive to show for the thousands of hours poured into all of those stories. It's just gone, as will happen to all of us, and then all memories of us, eventually. Smoke in the wind. 

Somewhat ironically, the column I randomly searched was about squeezing in one last mountain hike before the weather turned cold and snowy. My barely memorable 2009 self concluded, "Whatever you do, don't wait. Winter is coming."

Then there's lawyer cat, whose Zoom mishap went viral and brought joy and laughter to millions. The comedy of appearing in court as a kitten is classic and universal, but there's also something quintessentially modern about doleful eyes gazing through a screen to declare in a Texas accent, "I'm here behind this filter. I really am. I promise I am not the adorable but confused creature that I appear to be." 

Like — don't we all feel that way? Where is the line between the "real" and virtual worlds? Does such a thing even exist? When was the last time I spent more than a second looking at a mirror or considering my appearance in public? Can I be certain I am not a cat?

The oil light in our Subaru had been on for weeks, but I procrastinated taking the car in to get checked out — car repairs mean long waits, which often translates to time spent indoors, and isn't it better to just avoid driving altogether? Finally last week I caved and made an appointment, with a plan to just meander around Longmont on my gravel bike rather than risk the waiting area. The afternoon was extremely windy and also rainy, with tiny droplets flying directly into my face like icy needles. Blech. I wrestled with the handlebars while gusts pushed me backward. A white wall of snow hovered over the foothills. When I squinted through the misty curtain, I could see the blackened skeletons of trees — ominous scars of last October's Calwood Fire. Dread flushed through my veins like cold water. I looked away.

The diagnosis for the car was a severed oil sensor, likely chewed apart by the rabbits that like to hang out underneath our vehicles. (I used to find this cute. Now I admit I am rooting for the mountain lions that have also visited our doorstep.) If the rabbits had chewed a couple of millimeters to the left, the auto technician told me, it would have meant a $1,700 engine repair instead of a mere $200 for the sensor. I took this news without relief or irritation, having become desensitized to petty car troubles by the dreary plains, wildfire scars, and winds so strong they almost knocked me off my bike. 

Still, beneath the gloomy indifference was a spark of anticipation, a new little dream to pursue. While riding around Longmont, I came across several directional signs for the Old Man Winter Bike Rally, a 100-kilometer gravel event that's become a staple of bike culture in Boulder. I've been curious about participating in the race since we moved here, but it takes place during what's usually an inconvenient time of year — just a couple of weeks before the Iditarod, which for more than a decade now has been laser-focused on tapering and preparing to survive another adventure. I don't miss that February sense of doom, but then again I probably do, more than I realize. On the bright side, I have no obligations for training and nothing I do matters, so why not race Old Man Winter? The event went virtual this year, offering an opportunity to test the course on my own time while still enjoying the parameters and distant camaraderie of a race. 

My friend Betsy wanted to meet up for a ride on Friday, and I half-jokingly proposed riding the 100K course. She didn't have enough time for the distance, but was interested in riding through North Boulder and Longmont on a modified route. I rode thirty brisk miles with her, and then split off to explore the hilly second half of Old Man Winter. Amid this 60-mile ride, I basically explored the entire course and had no reason to pursue it further. Still, the idea of racing the course nagged at me. How fast could I go? The best women's times are around four hours ... could I do it in five? Five hours would have landed me in the top seven in 2019, the last time this race was held. 

No matter how I parse it out, I'm not a talented bike racer — I'm a timid descender, I have limited power on flat terrain, I insist on carrying my creature comforts, and I use platform pedals for crying out loud. I more or less quit bike racing back in 2013 when I realized I don't even like racing bikes all that much ... bikes are for fun, touring, and the occasional weeks-long endurance expedition. Using bikes as a vehicle to rank my mediocrity among other athletes is not that appealing ... and yet. And yet. 

Just as I began to scheme a time trial, a thick and unmoving inversion settled over the plains. The bad air that I fear from summer became a February reality. This smog was a mixture of vehicle and industrial emissions rather than wildfire smoke, but it's all a bit difficult for me to breathe. I noticed the brown layer on Monday while making my way into town for errands, and opted to stay higher for my morning run. This photo is from the summit of Green Mountain. 

The inversion persisted into Wednesday, when I had hoped to start my time trial. Smog flowed in and out of the neighborhood like waves lapping a shoreline — one minute it would be 25 degrees with the Air Quality Index above 90, and the next minute the west wind would push in 45-degree air with an AQI near 0 — good warm air and bad cold air, in a strange sort of dance. I avoided it all and stayed indoors, working out some of my jitters on the bike trainer while becoming increasingly agitated all the same. I needed to break out of this bubble. 

"Even if the AQI is bad tomorrow, I'm still going to try," I told Beat. "If I start wheezing I'll just quit."

By the time I started to get ready on Thursday morning, the temperature had already climbed to 42 degrees. The sun was out and the sky was a brilliant blue, a reflection of perfectly clear and pollution-free air. This was at my home at 7,200 feet — as in, the place where I actually live and could just walk out the door to enjoy perfect February weather. The wind was blowing to near gale-force, it's true, but when is it not? I checked the sensors in Lyons, where Old Man Winter begins, and saw that it was 12 degrees with an AQI of 94. Gross. An Air Quality Action Alert made it clear that the smog was not likely to clear up anytime soon. It would be pretty dumb to take my sensitive lungs down into the inversion and ride a bike at a tempo pace for five hours or more. And yet I wavered for only a minute, then packed up the car and headed down anyway.

The air had warmed to a balmy 14 degrees by the time I arrived. The sky was slate gray with the cloud ceiling just a hundred feet overhead. There was a skiff of powder on the ground and flurries wafting through the still air — "pollution snow," I thought. I decided not to check the AQI again; at this point, it's just better not to know. I didn't know when I was a young adult in Salt Lake City and used to ride my skinny road bike through smoggy inversions so thick I couldn't see five feet in front of me ... which is probably the genesis of why my lungs are so %&*! today. Anyway, I was surprised to find four other cyclists getting ready to embark on the same ride. My start time was a random 10 a.m. on a Thursday, so I expected to be alone, but I suppose Old Man Winter is pretty popular. 

"It's so cold!" the woman parked next to me exclaimed. "It wasn't supposed to be so cold today."

"I think it's going to be in the teens for most of the day," I said. "It's supposed to be colder over the weekend, though." 

"You look like you've done this before," she said, pointing to my feet. I was wearing oversized Gore-Tex hiking shoes along with knee-high gaiters. Meanwhile, the man opposite me was pulling the thinnest-looking pair of cycling shoe covers over his cleats. My toes cringed with a vicarious sensation of frostbite.

"Yeah, I wore gaiters," I said. "I don't like it when my feet are cold." 

"Well, you look prepared," she said. 

I had been rifling through a jacket pocket for my phone, and in pulling it out also pulled out the old KN95 mask I decided to carry just in case I started having asthma symptoms.

"I'm extra prepared," I said, holding up the mask. She regarded me silently with a confused look on her face. I forget that most people don't feel as strongly about air quality as I do, and that to her I was probably just advertising COVID paranoia ... which I also have, but not when I'm well distanced from others and also outdoors. 

I took off down the road and noted my start time after rolling past the Highway 36 intersection — 10:02 a.m. Pretty close! (I admit I had Beat change my official tracker to 10 a.m. from a planned 9:30 a.m., which I'd already changed from 11 a.m. Wednesday.) The gravel along the road was loose but less dusty than the previous week, so perhaps the pollution snow had done some good. I set into a solid tempo pace — heart rate 155-160 — and pretty much just hoped my speed wouldn't drop below a 15 mph average in the rolling hills. I'd decided not to watch my pace. I was riding my drop-bar gravel bike with studded tires, which are slow-rolling on non-icy surfaces but promised to help spare my old lady bones when patches of ice surprised me. I don't regret my gear choices in the least, but I sure had to work hard for 15 real miles per hour versus 15 virtual miles per hour on Zwift. I was glad it was 14 degrees, so I could pedal this hard and not even break a sweat. 

For the first hour, I was filled with irrational exuberance. I was racing my bike! How fun! I looked over my shoulders a few times to see if my random start time companions might catch me. I have no idea how much longer they took to get going, but they all looked fit and fast. My lungs started to feel raw and hints of wheezing escaped each exhalation, so I pulled up my fleece buff. I tried to take sips of water but my water bottle valves were already frozen. When I could afford to ride single-handed, I gnawed at them for several minutes until droplets of liquid escaped.

Fatigue began to set in with the mild dehydration as I made my way up Lefthand Canyon. My lungs felt raw and I resolved to back off this high-zone-three effort, but not before the end of the climb. No, have to at least try a little bit hard in the one discipline I'm reasonably good at — long, grinding ascents. The studded tires clicked on the pavement as I churned past the frosty trees and rose above the last wisps of haze. Above the inversion, the air was still brilliantly clear and warm. My bottles thawed and I took deep, refreshing gulps of water followed by equally refreshing gulps of air. The tightness in my lungs relaxed. I was feeling so much better, up here where the air is clear.

Rowena Trail seems to be the crux of this ride. I imagine it's as snowless as it's ever been during the race, but the trail was still a tricky mixture of bumpy death ice and large boulders. As that sign notes, there are also cliffs and ledges that can be unnerving. Heading into this, I'd decided I'd probably just throw the saddle over my shoulder and jog the full two miles at 4 mph, because it would probably be faster that way. By the time I arrived, buzzing on sunlight and oxygen and water, I was eager to rally this climb and attempted to ride most of it (except the cliffs. I hiked my bike beside the cliffs.) My time for the segment was 21 minutes, which is not blazingly fast for two miles of riding, but marginally more efficient than 30 minutes of running.

The rally riding was strenuous enough to work up a sweat in this warm air, just in time for the long descent into the frigid fog. It was painful. Or, perhaps another way to view the sensation, is that I felt fully alive and immersed in the harsh reality of my surroundings. My water bottles again froze by the second steep climb up Lindon. I even stopped to try to forcibly remove the lids. No dice. I hadn't yet eaten any of my snacks. My stomach grumbled uncomfortably because it was past lunchtime and I was hungry, but my throat was so raw that it was hard to force anything down, especially without water. Still, I wanted to have some oomph for the final segment of flats, so I gnawed on frozen fruit snacks until they dissolved. 

Climbing the 10-percent grades of Linden on sugar fumes with rigidly cold muscles half-broke me, and wrapped up the final twenty miles of the ride in a dream-like state of unreality. Occasionally I glanced over my shoulder and wondered how my 10 a.m. Thursday companions were faring. Did they regret using water bottles instead of hydration packs? Did they also find Linden to be an unmerciful bully? Were their toes cold? (Mine were not, thank goodness.) It's strange, when you think about it, how connected one can feel to strangers while racing. Maybe it's the comfort of shared misery. But there's also so much joy in these experiences. It somehow feels more meaningful when connected to the perspective of another person, even if this perspective is just as imaginary as anything else in a virtual world. (I don't know these people, and I don't know how they fared. I don't even know if they left Lyons. But in my mind, their stories parallel mine. Perhaps that's all that matters.) 

I pedaled through the dreamy fog in my own private haze, gasping occasionally when my brain fired off a signal to "pedal harder." I passed under the green light of Highway 36 and remembered just in time to pull out my phone. 3 p.m. on the dot! So that would make my ride ... 4:58ish. That was my goal! Five hours! But what did it matter, really? It was arbitrary. Old Man Winter had been an obsession of mine for all of a week, and now it was over. I'd earned nothing. I was probably going to pay for this hard ride in bad air with, at the very least, a day or two of lung congestion. Still, I went out into the world and I did something. That, in itself, felt refreshingly ... human. 

I'm here. I'm alive. I'm not a cat.