Saturday, July 23, 2016

Not-so-triumphant return

On Monday morning, I pumped up two completely flat tires, added lube to the dusty chain, tightened the stem, installed pedals, and sat on a bike saddle for the first time in four months. Although tentative as I rolled out from my driveway, a smile spread across my face as I coasted down the first hill. I was riding my bicycle. It's a simple but fathomless joy that I think only cyclists and 6-year-olds understand.

The smile admittedly faded some as I ground the pedals up a three-mile climb, with dust swirling in the hot wind and my underdeveloped quads straining under the workload. My right hand only recently became useful again, so my whole arm all the way to the shoulder is significantly weaker than the other. I've improved my grip with hand exercises, but that doesn't do much for biceps and triceps, which were burning by the time I reached the next descent.

My hand surgeon said I should be able to start riding again six weeks after surgery, and so July 18 was the date I'd been looking forward to since June. She told me to stick to flat pavement at first, but there's only a few miles of pavement close to home, and absolutely nothing is flat. Still, the gravel road climb went okay, and my grin returned on the second descent.

"I can probably ride a few miles out the trail."

The Homestead Trail is actually just an old doubletrack with a few eroded ruts, but for the most part it's smooth, evenly graded, and as non-technical as a "trail" can possibly be. I took that "yay bikes" selfie on the climb, and started downhill feeling rather pleased with the comeback ride. My wrist didn't hurt at all, there was no numbness, and I'd received the best confirmation that surgery worked. I was healed!

Old habits returned and I accelerated quickly on the descent, eyes wide and grin spreading when suddenly the bike flipped end-over-end. I still don't know why I crashed. There was nothing on the trail to hit. My best guess is that my brain hasn't adjusted to my arm strength imbalance, and I made some tweaky move with the steering that launched me over the handlebars. Or I'm just woefully out of practice. Whatever the reason, I was crumpled beneath my bicycle and struggling with my stupid bad arm to lift the damn thing off myself. Just like that, all of my joy flipped a complete 180 to crushing bewilderment.

This was one of those stories I wasn't going to tell anyone, because it was such a devastating emotional blow at the time. I had to tell Beat because my arm was torn up with new trail rash and there were several new bruises to add to the patchwork across my legs. But I didn't want to admit this to anyone else. I've had an inordinate number of running crashes in the past few months, and then there was the return of breathing difficulties, and now that I can finally ride a bike again, well, I can't even do that right. I pretty much suck at everything. Why do I suck at everything? I sat on the dirt for several minutes, crying and berating myself. I knew this was childish and unreasonable, but sometimes it's better to just let it all out, especially when there's no one else around to witness embarrassing meltdowns. Physical pain does help release the emotional stuff.

Now that it's five days later, I do feel better about it. I haven't gained much confidence, but I realize it's not going to come back instantaneously. Four months is a long time, especially since my last cycling experiences were in Alaska, and now that I think about it, my last dirt ride also ended in a crash (when the front rack came down on top of the wheel one week before the Iditarod.) I took the mountain bike out again on Wednesday and stuck more closely to pavement — specifically, the climb up Flagstaff Road. With 2,000 feet of climbing in 4.5 miles, Flagstaff closely resembles the profile of another road I used to ride regularly in California, Montebello. Flagstaff does differ in that it's more gradual at the bottom and becomes unconscionably steep for the most of the last 1.5 miles, but I figured it was a good place to compare performances. Well ... I don't really want to talk about that either. It was a little pathetic. There were some low-oxygen dizzy moments. Temperatures were in the low 90s and my face was oozing because I'm off antihistamines ahead of another skin allergy test next week. But I did it, and I didn't put a foot down. It's got to get better, right?

After Wednesday I needed a break from the ego bruising (plus my shoulder and arm are quite sore), so I've been running since then. I will get back on a bike soon enough. The universe approves, as evidenced by this double rainbow over our backyard.

South Boulder Peak, perfectly framed by the rainbows. I love afternoon thunderstorms — as long as I'm somewhere safe while they're happening — so I'm enjoying the arrival of monsoon season.

On Friday I traveled down to Colorado Springs to give a short talk about winter bikepacking during a "Bikepacking 101" event at Cafe Velo. My friend Dave Nice planned the event, and there was a great turnout. It was fun to chat with folks about cycling in Alaska, a subject of which I never tire. Several folks came up afterward and said they enjoyed hearing me talk about it so exuberantly, even though to them it sounded grueling and horrible. People have said this to me in the past. I once gave a video interview for an exercise science course at Stanford, and still hear from the instructor about how much her students love the segment. Joy is infectious. It's what sustains me when I'm down on myself for clumsiness and wheezing, counting the days until winter.

Anyway, since I was driving all the way to Colorado Springs but didn't have much extra time, I figured I should check out the iconic Manitou Incline. The incline is an old cable car track with the rail ties still in place, forming a staircase that gains 1,900 feet in 0.8 miles. I was not all that impressed with the steepness because in Boulder we have rocky trails that are just as steep (Fern Canyon), and most photos I've seen of the Incline were not that interesting. Still, when in Colorado Springs ... it seemed like one of those things I had to try once. I had to sit in Denver I-25 traffic and then pay ten dollars for parking in Manitou Springs, which made me grumpy. But all of that melted away once I started marching up the steps.

View from the top — actually, it was quite scenic and I was surprised. The climb was fun as well. Some of the steps are knee-high, but for the most part the steep ascent is evenly graded, which assists in steady breathing and focused forward motion. I took it fairly easy and stopped to take a couple of photos, but this would be a fun spot to return for PRs. Too bad I live two hours away.

Let's see how I can embarrass myself this week. It can only get better, right?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Hard as rock

 This past weekend, Beat and I traveled to Silverton for his third running of the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run. This hundred-mile loop through the San Juan Mountains is particularly revered in ultrarunning culture for its "wild and tough" reputation, and also the family-like community that has formed around the annual event. Thanks to its desirability, Hardrock has a small army of volunteers to put together a race where runners enjoy extensive support and five-star service at aid stations that are only accessible on foot. But even more than that, Hardrock and its mountains have an ethereal quality that draws people back year after year, and makes it so appealing that the odds of getting through the lottery as a first-time applicant now border on hitting it big in Vegas.

 It was difficult to gauge how excited Beat was for Hardrock this year. He's had a somewhat rough few months of training, adapting to a new climate and altitude along with the demands of a new house and job. With his annual Alps 200-mile double-header coming up in six weeks, he grumbled about putting together the speed for a "sprint" race like Hardrock — mostly a joke, but with an element of truth. I imagined he'd put it together anyway, as Beat doesn't often fail — actually, I don't recall him failing even once in the six years I've known him. Even so, he was nervous after coming down with the stomach flu a week ago, with residual gut issues that were still bothering him the night before the race.

I was looking forward to crewing Beat and supporting other friends in Hardrock, which is a fun crowd to hang out with and a beautiful place to spend a few days. Still, I have my own health and fitness issues right now that are causing angst, which only amplifies when I'm around this environment. When greeted by friends who I mainly see at ultras, I always received two questions: "What are you training for right now?" and "Are you pacing Beat?" I'm not training for anything technically because the only event on my calendar is the 2017 ITI, and I'm not even back on a bike yet following hand surgery. And I'm not pacing Beat because I can't keep up. Really. Even for 10 miles at Beat's 100-mile pace. Don't tell me, "You can do it." I can't. Really.

Why can't I keep up? Because I can't breathe. I need to slow or stop after I become winded when my heart rate spikes into the low 150s, which is terribly frustrating because just two years ago I was running full 50Ks with an average heart rate of 162. So basically I'm in Zone 3, barely working my cardiovascular system, but I still can't breathe. Pushing harder doesn't improve my fitness — I actually think it's made things worse. But my endurance is still good so I no longer enjoy the satisfaction of tired muscles or fatigue, because really the only things getting much of a workout are my lungs. This is frustrating. I'm working on figuring it out — allergies and asthma are likely to blame. But for now I don't really know, so there's angst.

 Anyway, even with my pathetic fitness, I could still crew for Beat and squeeze in a few beautiful hikes in the San Juans. After the pre-race stuff on Thursday afternoon, I had four hours to kill before dinner, so I went for a quick jaunt up Kendall Mountain, a 13,000-foot peak above Silverton. Because of the time constraints, I put in a solid effort, scrambled the final 400 feet to the summit, and still made it back only seven minutes late. I was feeling pretty good about myself until I compared my time to my previous outing on this 12-mile "run" in 2012, when I was a full 38 minutes faster. Damn you, Strava.

 Crewing for a race like Hardrock is demanding, even though I was only planning to hit four of the five allowed aid stations. While runners traverse rugged trails, support crews without adequate off-road vehicles or driving skills are required to drive for two and a half hours all the way around the mountain range just to bridge two places that are 27 miles apart. Between the travel and the supply replenishing and the waiting, it's difficult to find time to eat or sleep. But I always make time for adventures. In Telluride, I hoped to hit the trail early and hike backward on the course so I could watch race leaders descend into town. As a hopelessly awkward person, I view the flowing strides of talented mountain runners as a dance, as beautiful as any human movement. However, the course into Telluride followed a different route than it did in 2012, and I didn't realize it until I'd hiked for more than an hour to the top of Bridal Veil Falls. This was very disappointing, but not enough to turn around.

 Instead I hiked toward Black Bear Pass, which turned out to be a rugged but heavily used jeep road. Stepping off the road for a steady stream of rented Rubicons, breathing their dust and finally just venturing overland to avoid them, put me in an admittedly bad mood. This all culminated after I turned around and had one jeep shadow me for almost an hour — nearly three miles — as I hiked downhill. I kept looking over my shoulder so I could step off the road to let them by, but they weren't moving any faster. Yes, it was a steep and rocky route and they probably weren't experienced off-road drivers, but still. Three miles an hour. I would probably go nuts if forced to sit in a vehicle moving that slowly.

 At least Telluride was a fun aid station. I sat on the grass with a group of friends and had a nice picnic with some of Beat's snack food and Perrier. Beat came into the aid station on schedule and looking strong, but said his stomach was already bothering him quite a bit. I anticipated a long night of force-feeding him chicken noodle soup, and got the stove ready at the next stop in Ouray, which Beat hit just before dark. He was still doing well — at least he wasn't yet barfing like he was in 2012, but continued to feel nauseated and unable to eat. I heated up coffee at a picnic table as an attentive volunteer came over to take orders, then brought several plates of food. When I praised the aid station service, he urged me to leave a positive review on Yelp. Hardrock is an awesome event.

 After Ouray I caught an hour and a half of sleep in our tent/homeless encampment in Silverton before I woke up in a panic, unable to breathe. This was actually my first experience with shortness of breath while sleeping, and it was a little scary. The inhaler does help quite a bit in these cases, which leads me to believe more and more that I am dealing with chronic asthma that may be worsening.

The drive out to Grouse Gulch is unfun, as I really dislike piloting a vehicle on narrow roads with dropoffs, ruts, and rocks. I decided that if Beat ever races Hardock again, I will bring a mountain bike and make it my personal challenge to reach the aid stations before him — although I wouldn't be able to carry a cooler on my bike. The temperature was in the mid-30s and there was a strong breeze, so I put on puffy pants and made all of the other crewpeople jealous. Beat came in around 4 a.m. looking pale, and I tried to coax him to eat soup and quesadillas. This photo is my friend Steve arriving with his pacer, Harry, around 7 a.m. He was having breathing problems, so I loaned him my inhaler. After the breathless episode while sleeping, I felt nervous about parting with it, but I really hoped it would save his race. Unfortunately, his breathing problems became worse and he decided it would be unsafe to go beyond the next aid station. This was a smart decision.

 After my California friends left, I spent a few hours languishing at Grouse Gulch while debating whether to hike to Handies Peak. My breathing was getting worse, I didn't have an inhaler, and with the limited sleep and lack of real food, I was feeling pretty lousy. Ultimately I decided not to go, and instead watched the back-of-packers leave the aid station close to the cutoff. It is inspiring to witness the determination and grit of the Hardrockers.

 I swung over to the final aid station, Cunningham Gulch, where I still had quite a few hours to kill. I decided I could hike slowly up the gulch toward an area called Highland Mary Lakes. My breathing was rough, and I didn't have the inhaler which made me anxious, but this was a fantastic place to visit. Pretty quickly this trail takes you into the high alpine, where one can traverse any number of high ridges along sparkling blue lakes with stunning views of the Grenadier Range.

 I hiked to a high point and sat for a while, enjoying the breeze at 12,600 feet. This year was the hottest Hardrock on record, and temperatures in the 80s can feel downright blistering at these altitudes. I remain amazed at all the folks who completed the race this year. I think managing heat issues for this distance is much more difficult than cold weather and rain (I am basing this opinion on my experience last year at UTMB, when temperatures hit 36C.) However, no one missed the lightning storms.

 Beat arrived in Silverton just after 3 a.m. Sunday morning., after nearly two days of nonstop traveling. He actually looked pretty fresh.

Kissing the hardrock is part of the tradition — rituals like these are another aspect of Hardrock that make it more of a community than other events. Proud of him! 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Fire season

 Beat and I decided to walk the two miles to our neighbor's house on Sunday evening, but about halfway through, I wondered if even this brief venture outdoors was a mistake. The acrid sting of smoke filled my nostrils, and my airways began to constrict. The Cold Springs Fire was flaring up ten miles away, and a refreshing but unwelcome breeze drove the smoke directly toward us. Presumably the flames were moving this direction as well.

More than a dozen neighbors attended the gathering that was held for our benefit as new residents on the drive. Thanks to recent events, discussion was filled with tips about fire mitigation and evacuation procedures. Most of the neighbors where around three years ago when South Boulder Mountain burned, and a few remembered farther back to the Walker Ranch blaze. It's scary, they agreed, but what can you do? Fire is a risk you take when you choose to live in the mountains.

We sipped cold drinks on the porch as a black plume of smoke billowed from hills not so distant. Just standing outside, each breath felt a little like inhaling hot shards of glass. I'd already decided that I wouldn't exercise for the rest of the week unless the air cleared up substantially. Of course, concerns were much greater for those who had already lost their homes, thousands of dead animals, and other tragic impacts that were creeping closer with every harrowing gust of wind.

Since my friends and I first saw the plume of smoke while driving home from a trailhead near Nederland on Saturday afternoon, the Cold Springs Fire has taken over my thoughts. I admit to obsessively refreshing the various Web updates. Effects of the fire are hitting increasingly close to home. The southeastern perimeter of the evacuation zone is only about five miles away, and as of Monday evening there was still zero percent containment. Beat and I have been discussing our own evacuation plan. If things don't improve by Wednesday, we'll have to reconsider traveling to Silverton for Hardrock.

Firefighters have been doing an amazing job battling this blaze, and the chances it will reach us are low. But with the Cold Springs Fire, recent flare-ups in my breathing issues, avoiding the outdoors because of asthma and smoke, bug bites, wind and heat, my disdain for summer has reached a disheartening high. Before I slip into full seasonal affective disorder, I am pulling up gentle reminders that summer is in fact beautiful here in Colorado — starting with the awesome run I enjoyed with Eszter and Elaine on Friday morning.

 My aerobic capacity has been on the decline since allergy season really revved up, and it hasn't improved yet. I'd been blaming altitude in part, but I didn't fare better with breathing in Portland last week, so that theory had to be discarded. For this reason and a few others, I currently have no business running with these highly fit ladies, but I was thrilled they wanted to include me on this big loop around Rollins Pass. But I went out a little too hard (at their conversational pace) and winded myself to the point of dizziness by mile two. While mildly dizzy, I tripped and fell three times before the third mile, skinning my knees and bruising my ego so badly that I nearly turned around and sprinted away without explaining why. It was very embarrassing.

 I was grateful they took my wheezing and bumbling in stride. Thankfully things improved as we climbed to the Divide and descended Rollins Pass Road on some intriguing but disconcertingly creaky old railroad trestles. From there we dropped into the greater Eldora area on crumbling jeep tracks and a maze of faint forest trails that had everyone, including the local Elaine and our guide Eszter, wondering where the hell we were. It was great fun. We wrapped up twenty miles by early (and hot) afternoon, and I felt better at the end of the run than I did at the start. Sometimes I wonder if it just takes a while for my lungs to "open up."

 All week long, our friends Steve, Harry, and Martina visited while Steve and Harry acclimated for Hardrock. Beat dragged Steve and Harry on a grueling high-altitude epic on Sunday — while I was sauntering along the beach in Oregon — and they were pretty tired for the rest of the week. We still went out for a few shorter runs during the week. By Saturday they were feeling better, so despite the fact they were technically tapering, I coaxed them on the 14-mile jaunt to James Peak, elevation 13,300. (This is the same peak Beat and I climbed a few weeks earlier. Since I was guiding a group with variable paces, it seemed best to stick to a route I knew.)

 Beat came down with a fever overnight and couldn't join. But it was a beautiful afternoon, not terribly hot at 9,000 feet and not cold at 13,000, with a few gusty winds on the ridge but utterly calm on the summit. We spent an hour up there after noon, with no thunderstorms in sight. In hindsight, knowing what I know now about the fire that sparked shortly after started down James Peak, an afternoon downpour would have been welcome.

Steve on James Peak. Today I'm thinking about the folks battling the fire and hoping for a quick resolution. I look forward to going back to enjoying summer in Colorado again.