Saturday, September 24, 2016

First days of autumn

I was glad we were returning from Europe just in time to catch the peak of autumn in the Colorado high country, and hopeful that summer and all of its supposed air toxins were long gone. This apparently wasn't the case, as I'm back to sucking in the outdoors all over again. Maybe my breathing difficulties will eventually clear up, or maybe they're all in my head ... something I'm inclined to believe, as any discernible pattern or cause remains elusive. 

Last week in Italy, I engaged in 20 hours of moderate to strenuous effort, largely between 5,000 and 10,000 feet, over 65 miles with more than 26,000 feet of climbing, and had no issues, not one. Pretty much all I ate in Italy was pizza, bread, and pasta. My sleep was poor and I was stressed out for various reasons, but physically I felt fine. After three days in the states, I'd returned to struggling mightily and sucking on the inhaler I hadn't touched in a month.

 Full disclosure: I neglected my asthma medications for the last two weeks of the trip. I have no excuses, and obviously I'm the one who has to suffer if they were in fact working. For the first two days at home I felt great, jet-lag be damned. So on Wednesday I set out for a long ride, hoping to kickstart winter training season.

Maybe six months mostly off the bike has left me in poor shape for a 50-mile ride with 7,000 feet of climbing. That seems likely. Anyway, it was going well for the first 30 miles, but I became a bit stressed descending the singletrack at Betasso, which perhaps triggered the airway obstructions that almost prevented me from making it home.

 One and a half miles from the top of Flagstaff Road, I became so light-headed that I had to pull over and sit down on a culvert. This break set off a bout of hyperventilating that became worse and worse. I texted Beat and said, "I'm on Flagstaff, having tough breathing issues. If you're home can you come pick me up?" I already knew that he was out for a run, so I waited ten more minutes and commenced crawling up the road, pedaling as slow as physically possible while taking short, rapid breaths. If it wasn't Flagstaff I certainly would have walked, but my ego won that battle. The whole episode was embarrassing. When I finally made it home, it took nearly a half hour to finally "catch" my breath. Beat tested my blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and heart rate. Everything looked normal. I'm honestly baffled. "It's all in my head" is about the only explanation that makes sense.

 The hyperventilating episode took so much out of me that I took a day off on Thursday. I set out Friday for another "test" effort, this time hiking up Bear Peak from Boulder. This is the route that gains nearly 2,000 feet in the final mile before the summit. For me, steep hiking is more strenuous than cycling. But it seemed the safer bet, since I'm currently in much better hiking shape, and also I'm afraid of riding a bike right now. I didn't push the pace but still bested my PR. No breathing issues at all. What gives?

 I guess it goes without saying that I'm faithfully back on asthma meds now, and gearing up to likely start immunotherapy in mid-October. I expect to feel terrible during this treatment, but it's worth a shot (Ha! Shot.) I'm also considering cutting wheat out of my diet, as this seems to be the thing to do when one has a mostly inexplicable health issue. Wheat has been tied to grass allergies in the past. Full disclosure: I'm loathe to do this and may put it off for a while to see whether immunotherapy works first. I'd basically rather suffer through horrific allergic reactions twice a week than cut out pizza and cake. (Okay, I'd rather cut out cake. But all of my research points to immunotherapy being the one thing most likely to work. And if it doesn't, psychotherapy may be next.)

 Anyway, Beat and I got out for an autumn hike up Niwot Ridge on Saturday, and I was struggling again. After seeing summer temperatures all week, we were surprised when it was 44 degrees at the trailhead, and it only got colder from there. A fierce wind raced down the ridge, driving flurries of snow at face-stinging velocities. Neither Beat nor I had the ideal number of clothing layers. But I loaned him my mittens and stayed mostly comfortable, except for the weird light-headedness and staggering.

 Beat found a nice wind-block just before we turned our backs on winter and returned to fall. Without knowing what's causing my breathing issues, it's difficult to say whether I'll even be able to handle winter training. I'm still hopeful that once the snow flies, everything will turn around. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Final day of Tor

For the two weeks I spent in the Alps during both PTL and TDG, my goal was not just to wander around in beautiful places. I wanted to venture outside of my comfort zone, to the spaces where my heart rate spikes and my blood runs cold, to prove to myself I am capable of becoming the mountain traveler I want to be. I achieved this occasionally, although the teetering and vertigo and weird foot placements proved I still don't have a solid grasp on my own proprioception, and may never. By Friday morning, my legs were cut and bruised from mistakes made in relatively benign places, my quads and calves were sore from endlessly steep climbs and descents, and my mood and confidence were all but shattered. I headed out to Ollomont to see Beat at the final life base, and my hands were quaking for most of the drive. Great, now I'm apparently terrified of driving, too. I do love the Aosta Valley, but at this point, I couldn't wait to go home.

It was pissing rain and temperatures were in the low 40s. A forecast promising drier conditions did not deliver, and Beat arrived in Ollomont drenched and freezing. He'd already slept at one of the rifugios overnight, so he took a short nap. Meanwhile, I drank three cups of coffee while sitting on the wet plastic chairs of an espresso stand (I found the first Italian barista willing to make me an "Americano," and I was so happy.) By the time Beat set out again, I was fully soaked and shivering myself. My options for warming myself were getting back in the car and driving back to Courmayuer, or hiking. So I laced up my now-mostly-shredded Hokas and headed up the 40-percent muddy grade that passes for a trail in these parts.

The TDG climb was a messy slog, and I passed time by scrolling through the screen on my GPS, looking for possible alternative routes. The map showed a trail traversing around the far side of this mountain, eventually linking to another trail that linked to the opposite side of Col Champillon. This trail was marked in blue, which I already knew was better interpreted as a "route" than a "trail." Still, it could make for an intriguing loop. I followed the mystery trail for all of a quarter mile before faint imprints in the grass faded completely, and then it was a matter of tracing meandering cattle tracks as the slope became muddier and steeper.

Of course I wanted to turn around, but curiosity drove me forward. By the time I broke out of the forest, I was vaguely following my GPS track along increasingly steep grassy slopes that were flanked by sheer cliffs. It was still raining, and the grass was wet and barely clinging to the oozing mud that coated the hillside. Each step was incredibly unnerving, as I edged the shredded sole of my Hokas into the mud, drove in both poles and gritted my teeth at the prospect of slipping. If this had been a snow slope, there's no way I would have traversed it, and instinct told me the grass was just as slippery and the possibility of sliding hundreds of feet to my death just as likely. Still, I wasn't convinced that the objective danger was as bad as I perceived. Mostly I continued forward because I was more scared of turning around.

Eventually, after careful analysis of my GPS screen and stubborn adherence to the invisible "route," I connected with a faint actual trail that became more defined as I neared the col. The above photo is the only one I took during this section, long after I'd connected with the good trail. Imagine those slopes with no flat platform on which to rest your feet. Brrr.

As I topped out on Col Champillon, the rain tapered off and the clouds began to break, revealing the first hints of sunshine I'd seen in days. I sat on the pass watching TDG runners go by while glancing over my shoulder at the intimidating ridgeline of Crou de Bleintse. After the adrenaline drain of the wet grassy traverse, I'm not sure what prompted this thought, but there it was — "I bet I can climb that."

Yes, it was awful. Fog continued to stream over the ridge as I skittered up loose rubble and wet-concrete-like mud. Patches of snow and ice still dotted the rocks, and the low visibility ensured I couldn't determine good lines beyond my immediate surroundings. Of course, just when you think you've entered a place that no one in there right mind would ever venture in the Alps, you come to a sign. This one translates to "Prohibition of hunting partridge." Huh?

This scrambly section was better than the rubble. Thick fog moved in and clung to the ridge as I neared the peak, which disappointingly eradicated the views. I knew I would have to descent the rubble, and this caused much angst.

The fog only cleared again after I successfully passed the rubbly section. There were a few moments of clinging precipitously to a rock while my feet inched down an oozing chute of certain death, but all in all it wasn't as bad as anticipated.

More clearing, looking toward the village of Saint Rhemy-en-Bosses. I'm still not entirely sure why I crawled up that ridge. I was in a strange mood.

Back to the candy-ass trail. I'm so happy to see you! I won't ever leave you again.

More clearing as I descended the other side on the TDG route.

Rifugio Champillion.

Ah, Italy.

 Beat finished in Courmayeur early the next morning, around 4 a.m. He traveled for much of the last half with an English guy named Stephen, who has a chalet in Chamonix where we stayed on Saturday night. I joked that Beat always finds a buddy for TDG, and several of them have gone on to become good friends. There are reasons why racing is better than wandering around aimlessly in mountains, purposelessly scaring yourself.

Anyway, the rain and fog came back, and I made one more jaunt up to the ridge above Bertoni while Beat napped on Saturday afternoon. It had been an interesting trip, but I really was looking forward to returning to Colorado. Hopefully I can find my way into a few more mountains before the snow flies. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

More days of Tor

My usual mode of operations for the Tor des Geants is to drive to each of the six life bases — generally hitting one per day — bring Beat some dry, clean clothing and other supplies, wait for him to sleep a few hours, fetch beer and espresso, and provide back scratches and moral support. He doesn't really need all this, but I value the overall experience of the "crew-person." This year the task was difficult for me, for personal and other reasons unrelated to the race. I spent much of the week feeling stressed or sad, as well as guilty for feeling this way when I was on holiday in one of the most wonderful places in the world, the Italian Alps. But this is life — we can't always control how or what emotions affect us, no matter how much we want to. 

Let's get the most embarrassing emotion out of the way first: Confronting past failures. I tried and failed to finish the TDG in 2014, after falling and injuring myself in a way that seems almost inevitable, because I'm clumsy and slow and useless. Yes, continuously confronting past failures is bad for self-esteem, and I've currently reached a new low in how I view myself as an athlete. Meanwhile, Beat was running his seventh Tor as one of eleven runners who have finished all of them. I realized that in the many dozens of races he's run since I met him six years ago, there's only one he didn't finish: the 2015 Iditarod, which both of us believe isn't a real DNF. So even my moral support seemed a bit useless. But I still made an effort to drive those narrow, winding, often single-lane Aosta Valley roads with stone walls on both sides and oncoming trucks barreling down at full speed because they don't care, and apparently have a refined spatial awareness that I completely lack. Thus, "driving stress" built up early and strong this year.

On Monday I headed out to Cogne in the morning — partly to avoid the worst of traffic by hitting the streets early, and partly to give myself time to hike before Beat arrived at the life base in the early evening. I mapped out a col that looked doable but different from the standard TDG route, which generally links the most doable high routes in the region (meaning routes that are simply steep class-2 terrain and not full scrambles.) It wasn't until I strapped on my pack and started walking that I realized my quads were almost completely shot from Sunday's adventure on Mont Chetif. Apparently crawling up an endless series of waist-high rock steps while clinging to cables with weak arms and pumping out exhaustive quantities of adrenaline will do that. My quads have not been that sore in a long, long time.

At 10,300 feet — a 5,000-foot climb in six miles — Colle della Rossa is not a small effort. The weather was already beginning to turn with rain, wind, and temperatures in the high 40s. My quads were screaming at times, but I have become pretty good at that "shut up legs" routine — especially when it comes to quads, which are huge muscles that can take a lot more abuse than they'd let you believe.

Looking back at Col Loson, the highest pass on the TDG route at 10,800 feet. I watched runners bounding down the zig-zagging trail and was envious of their downhill speed. My quads were definitely not going to tolerate running, and I hadn't even done the 60 miles of hard terrain they'd already completed. More evidence that I'm clumsy and slow and useless.

I was sitting above the col eating cashews when the fog finally moved in, which sent me scrambling to get down as quickly my quads would allow. The loose scree trail was just tricky enough that I didn't want to have to negotiate it in zero visibility.

On Tuesday I headed out to Donnas and failed to take any photographs of Beat or that beautiful, old village. My quads had recovered a lot during the day, so I embarked on a quick run up to Refugio Bertoni in the evening to spur some energy before I worked through the night. I will be grateful to be back in a North American time zone.

On Wednesday Beat hit Gressoney in the middle of the day, and because I slept through the morning, I didn't have an opportunity to hike. He was moving well but predictably tired at this point. The weather was becoming worse, with colder temperatures, more rain, and sleet and snow on the higher passes. It had gotten to the point where I was hand-washing and drying three to four pairs of socks per day (drying out clothing is probably the most useful thing I did for Beat during the Tor.) It was always fun to see him.

Thursday morning, I was already a bit stressed when I set out for Valtournenche in the morning — the result of a few work issues, and falling behind my own self-imposed deadlines. Driving up the canyon, there were a couple of heart-rate-spiking incidents with big trucks, and then I accidentally overshot the parking lot to the life base. I continued to drive up the winding road until I reached what I thought was a spot with enough visibility to make a U-turn, and pulled over. I checked the mirrors and pulled out, but didn't have quite enough room to make the turn. So I put the car in reverse and began backing out when a white SUV swung around the corner at high speed. I saw the vehicle, but I was unfortunately sideways and blocking much of the road in my mid-turn attempt. I'm sure the driver didn't see me at all until the last second, when he swerved dramatically to the left as I slammed the gas in a desperate reverse toward my original pull-out spot, convinced I was about to be T-boned. The driver stopped and got out of his car, and I did too because I wasn't sure we hadn't collided. He was screaming at full volume, of course in Italian so I couldn't understand what he was saying, and I was shaking and mumbling "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." He continued screaming as he walked toward me, and this made me believe he was going to hit me. I'm not sure why I believed this, but instinct urged me strongly to turn and sprint away because violence was clearly imminent.

Instead, he stopped less than a foot away, still too close for comfort, as I stood frozen like a deer in headlights. He screamed for a few more seconds in rapid Italian before stomping back to his vehicle and screeching away. I slunk back to my car, pulled it back into the driveway where I'd first stopped, and broke down. Suddenly I was very frightened and very upset. I think these emotions were an accumulation of driving-related stressors as well as the encounter with a stranger who appeared incredibly angry, which triggered a visceral reaction. Since I couldn't understand his words, he might as well have been saying, "I'm going to kill you." On a primitive level I believed this, and even though he was gone, all of the bad adrenaline continued flooding into my system.

I sat in the car for at least twenty minutes crying and shaking before I put myself together and drove back to Valtournenche. Beat arrived about twenty minutes later. I thought I was over the road-rage incident at that point, but as soon as Beat asked me how it was going, I melted down all over again. It's interesting to experience this reaction, as objectively nothing happened. I've been lucky in my life so far to have not become a victim of violence, and this brief brush with the possibility drove home just how deeply affecting it can be. Just being screamed at by a stranger completely ruined my day, and even after Beat left Valtournenche, I continued to cower in the car and wonder whether I'd find the courage to drive back to Courmayeur.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I defiantly turned up the canyon and headed toward Cervinia. The village is only about six miles from Valtournenche, and I've long wanted to visit and see the Matterhorn. I'd already considered coming here this year, but the terrible weather thwarted my plans. Now I just didn't care that it was 35 degrees, windy, and heavily sleeting. In fact, I was glad conditions were so rough. This weather was perfect for angry hiking.

The view was like this most of the time. I climbed up to 9,800 feet, at which point the route I was tracing became a full scramble on boulders coated in thick verglas. I was angry, not suicidal, so I turned around. Later, looking at a map, I realized this route was an approach on the ridge of the actual Matterhorn (which Italians call Monte Cervino.) For some reason this knowledge made me feel better. Actually, the whole hike made me feel better — pushing a hard pace on my still-sore quads and breathing through a soaked buff as slush slammed into my face and a frigid wind knifed through my jacket. I didn't see another person for four hours, and worked out a lot of the bad energy and malaise.

I decided that if Beat decides to return in 2017 for an eighth Tor, I'll just try to sign up again. I may be clumsy and slow and useless, but I'm still better at this than I am at driving.