Sunday, May 20, 2018

Mist season

It's been one of those perfect weeks of spring, where decidedly "Un-Colorado" weather settles in for a few days — long enough to saturate the dry ground, but not so long as to wear out its welcome. Some of the "300 Days of Sunshine" proponents might disagree, but I enjoy this short season of gray mist. It reminds me of my favorite long runs in California, or the rose-colored glasses I now have for Juneau. I loved this misty weather even when it was 38 degrees and pouring, and I opted to go to the gym instead of enduring a sloppy bike ride — because you don't need to get needlessly coated in cold mud to appreciate spring hydration.

 The animals seem to be enjoying spring as well. Deer and turkeys have taken over the place, hummingbirds returned in force, our outdoor goldfish are full of vigor after their winter stupor, and neighbors are posting photos of a mountain lion family on the prowl all over the neighborhood — which may explain why the deer are bedding down so close to the house. I also encountered my first black bear of the season, while driving home on Thursday. A small bear, he appeared to be hanging out more or less in our driveway before I startled him, and then watched his adorable bear paws bound along the edge of the road before he veered into the brush. My parents were visiting at the time, so I went inside to warn them — just in case they had any food in their car.

Our friends Dan and Amy from Alaska visited earlier in the week. So it was a busy week where the weather was often rough and I didn't get outside all that much, except for the afternoon before my parents arrived on Wednesday, when summer made an appearance. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and temperatures nudged past 80 degrees, so I slathered on multiple applications of sunscreen — still not enough to avoid second-degree burns along my wrist, arm, and a sliver of my lower back — packed three liters of ice water and a sandwich — which I neglected to eat after getting too wrapped up in making good progress over a six-hour ride with a deadline — and borrowed Beat's cross bike for a blistering fast ride on still-muddy gravel and gravel-strewn pavement.

It will probably surprise no one but myself that I fell in love with the cross bike. Beat has owned this bike for more than a year, and I'm just now trying it out. I've always been a cross/gravel skeptic because they seem like bikes that are just a little worse at everything. A road bike is better on pavement, and a mountain bike is more fun and comfortable on dirt, even non-technical dirt. Shortly after we moved to Colorado, when my breathing issues were at their worst, I abandoned my road bike because I physically could not pedal it up some of the steepest grades near our home. Back then, even my low-geared mountain bike would stall out on the Flagstaff Road grinders, and I'd crawl into a nearby ditch to catch my breath and sometimes cry a little bit. These were bad times. I didn't talk about them widely, because I was ashamed.

My sometimes-decimated and still-unpredictable fitness is the reason the road bike hasn't been ridden in two years. Now it needs new tires and a little work before it can reasonably be used again. After two years of grinding away on knobby tires and studded tires and loaded fat bikes and bikes with suspension, the cross-bike intro has been a startling revelation. This bike demands so little of me to fly up gravelly hills and 25 miles of rollers along the Peak-to-Peak Highway. There was a 12-mile descent where I could pedal much of the time — my mountain bike is geared so low that I usually have to lazily coast, often while freezing my butt off because it's winter, for 45 minutes. I was buzzing by the time I met Beat in town, because it's not every day I can enjoy so many miles and so many hills with so much scenic goodness for so little effort.

The following morning I was sporting an embarrassing patchy sunburn to meet my new primary care physician. The physical went well — most notably, my blood pressure has dropped to 108/68 after regularly hitting 138/100 for much of February. When I mentioned this to an observing nurse practitioner, she said, "Well, you're probably more active now than you were during the winter." Yeah, about that.

But, really, it's satisfying to identify as healthy ... for now at least. The doctor graciously agreed to examine the toe I broke three weeks earlier, and concluded, "you're probably okay to run." I expected more caution than that ... I'd been dutifully limping around in my orthopedic sandal until recently, and the toe still hurt. These doctors I manage find ... always encouraging me to go wild and take chances. Where are all of the supposedly conservative medical providers all of my athletic friends seem to complain about? Anyway, since removing the buddy tape, I've noticed that my previously curled and crooked pinkie toe has actually straightened a bit. The once-sideways nail, which is already ruined from constant pressure against the side of my shoes, now faces upward. Genetics left me with bad toes, and injury actually fixed one of them.

With the doctor's blessing, I was able to squeeze in one hike with my dad — a conservative five miles along the gradual west ridge trail to Green Mountain, walking slowly while wearing my ancient hiking boots. Dad was patient with me as I ambled along, grumbling about toe pain. Only later did I realize that if I remove the buddy tape, my toe doesn't hurt at all — I was probably wrapping it too tightly. But it was nice to spend a couple of days at home with my folks, even if our adventures were underwhelming. It seems as though I'm either injured or sick or recovering from surgery every time they come to visit.

 Beat went out for a long run on Sunday in prep for the Bryce 100 in two weeks. I was filled with FOMO — last spring I was doing my own long runs before the Bryce 100, and I admittedly miss compulsory adventures. The optional ones are okay, I guess. The weather had again turned sloppy and cold, so I donned the big boots for a hike up the west ridge to Bear Peak. At the summit, I felt so good that I continued down Shadow Canyon to wrap around the Mesa Trail to Fern Canyon, having forgotten how long that route really takes — it turned my one-hour hike into almost four. But my toe felt fine, and it was fun to splash through ankle-deep mud in the big waterproof boots and breathe in cool, humid air.

Fern Canyon, with its 1,800 feet of climbing in 0.85 miles, is always a fun fitness test. I pushed it a little and missed my PR by just five seconds. Five seconds! This was intended to depict tired satisfaction ... yay, I haven't been running in a month, and it's wet and muddy and I'm wearing heavy boots, but I almost got it.

As this cold front came and went with the lowest temperature registering a balmy 37 degrees, it's time to accept that winter is truly over, and the window for hopeful instances of late-spring snow has closed. This is always a somber realization for me ... summer is coming. But it's nice to head into the hot season feeling healthy, if a bit aimless, for now.
Saturday, May 12, 2018

Happiness curve

I recently read an article in the Guardian about the "Happiness Curve" — a concept that life satisfaction is highest during childhood, declines through adulthood until it bottoms out in our 40s, then begins to curve upward as we grow old. It's an interesting concept to ponder, as I stare down the long tunnel of middle age.

The author of a book about this curve told the Guardian, “The most surprising thing is that age tends to work in favor of happiness, other things being equal. The most strange thing is that midlife slump is often about nothing.”

More interesting than the article itself were the reader comments, which I admittedly spent a couple of hours reading. They ran the spectrum, but the general pattern was people in their 20s and 30s listing the reasons why they were justifiably miserable, people in their 40s declaring their financial and family status along with other permanent stressors, people in their 50s arguing strongly either for or against the happiness curve, and people in their 60s, 70s and 80s chiming in that yes, life is hard, but, actually, it's pretty good.

The unsurprising conclusions: Older people have had time to develop their sense of self and become secure in their values. They're prioritized relationships and experiences over achievements and status. They're more willing to live in the moment. Less driven to compete with others. No longer as beholden to the tyrannical whims of their hormones. More likely to feel gratitude for what they have, rather than yearn for what they don't have.

Of course, the golden years aren't an easy ride. There's a reason for the mantra "old age is not for the faint of heart." There's a lot of loss during that period of life, declining health, pain and sickness, reckoning with past regrets and imminent mortality.

Still, the point of the happiness curve theory is that these realities don't necessarily mean misery. Said one 73-year-old commenter whose husband is mostly bedridden and dying of a lung condition: "The other day he said to me: 'I feel like I’ve never been so happy in my entire life as I am right now.' I agree with the research! For us the past five years have been like a second honeymoon — a time of great joy — in spite of knowing his lungs are compromised and there’s no cure, short of a lung transplant (for which he’s too old)."

I was thinking about this article on Wednesday when I set out for a solo ride up Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. I didn't want to let spring go by without squeezing in a ride up here, while road crews work to clear away many feet of snow and the higher elevations remained closed to vehicles. It's a Colorado spring classic, and Wednesday presented an ideal weather window.

As I pedaled into the park, I noted my fortune in having the freedom to spirit away on a day-long bike ride, on a weekday, on a whim. I don't feel like a care-free retiree — I still feel driven to do work, to fight for the things I value, to create. I still have goals and ambitions. And yet I acknowledge that, in some ways, I skipped over the middle part of life — ladder-climbing career, status-building, amassing wealth, raising children. I still have my father's pragmatic side and a plan if my current situation upends, but acknowledge that it doesn't carry the security a typical late-30-something desires. I already have health conditions to which I'll forever be shackled, so if I lose my health insurance, I'll have to do everything I can to gain it elsewhere. But I don't feel regret. I don't believe regret is coming for me, either.

The climb to 12,000 feet was long and tedious — at least, from an outside perspective. Nearly 20 miles, 5,000 feet of elevation gain, on a gravel-strewn paved road winding through woods and then snow-covered tundra. On the surface, I felt a dull ache from my shoulders — delayed-onset muscle soreness from a tough weight-lifting session the previous day. My broken toe felt pinched in a hard-soled boot. The weather at that altitude was unsurprisingly cold and windy, yet I chose to come underprepared and thus remained uncomfortable.

Below the surface, though, I felt strong. My recent thyroid numbers have all come within normal range, perhaps for the first time in years. All of the mental weirdness I was experiencing last year ... the brain fog, memory lapses, disconnected thoughts and inexplicable depression ... all of those symptoms that had me worried about declining cognition ... early-onset old age ... have evaporated. Just like that. For now, I'm not beholden to the tyranny of my hormones. It feels really good. Also, I can breathe!

Deeper still, I felt content. If pedaling my bike was something I could do all day, every day, I'd probably remain happy. It's not something I want to try, because I value my relationships, my efforts to create, my medications and food and other things I wouldn't be able to afford if I just rode a bike all the time. And yet, this aimless forward motion is enough to create deep satisfaction. I discovered this young, perhaps too young, as I drifted away from my career path at age 24 to ride an overloaded touring bike across the country. But I don't regret this either. I'm still involved in journalism where it matters to me. Sure, I am not super successful. I don't mind. Accolades and awards and the respect of my peers are other things I could probably skip altogether.

So what do I want? That Guardian article was a good prompt to consider what I most value in life: Meaning and truth. The first is why I keep moving forward, battling my nihilistic inclinations, even though I realize nothing will be resolved before my final breath. The second is even more cryptic, hidden behind flawed human perspectives and emotions. Yet it must exist. There must be a definitive answer to everything, even if hidden in layer upon layer of quantum mechanics, forever inaccessible. I suppose this is my discontent in life — that I'll never understand it.

Perhaps there's a life hack to this happiness curve, but I believe it lies closer to the early end of the spectrum. The awe, wonder, and magical possibility of children — these are perspectives we're all too prone to set aside in adulthood. There's good reason for this — such perspectives require a hefty dose of uncertainty, discomfort and fear. Once we've formulated a story that makes sense to us, it's too easy to become complacent. More gratifying than knowing something is the hunger to know it better.

I reached the end of the line for Trail Ridge Road — a big sign declaring the road was now closed to all users. Just around the curve and out of sight, I could hear heavy machinery working and figured the road was still buried in 12 feet of snow beyond that point. Not quite content to just head home, I descended all the way to Little Horseshoe Valley and tried my luck on the gravel climb, Old Fall River Road. Near 10,000 feet I hit the first snow drifts. Still not content to stop, I waded through the mush, gingerly placing my tender foot. A few steps found purchase, but more often I crashed through rotten snow into thigh-deep holes with water at the bottom. The bike bogged down to its hubs, and I had to lift it up and plop it down with every step. This was dumb. But what was around the next corner? Beautiful mountain views! Maybe the next switchback would be more sun-exposed, with more open dirt. Curiosity drove me forward.

After a mile of mud and increasingly larger drifts, the road became entirely snow-covered. My toe was hurting. This was probably more walking than I'd done in the two weeks since I broke it, and it was not friendly walking. Finally the adult in me won over, grumbling as I retraced each uncomfortable step with my now-soaked feet and waterproof hiking boots filled with snow. Still, I kept looking over my shoulder. What was out there? I have to know, so I'll have to come back. I could say this of a thousand places. Millions of places if my life were long enough, but it's quite short. Still, if I can retain that childlike wonder, even if my body breaks down entirely, I think I could arrive at the end of my life happy.

Maybe this is the life hack: Skip the angsty fluff in the middle and embrace the sharp edges. Accept life for the absurd, novel, impermanent, fleeting, amazing thing that it is. As an 80-something commenter put it: "As far as I'm concerned, life is a huge amount of fun and if the old man with the scythe came to collect me in the next few minutes, I wouldn't feel I'd been short-changed." 
Monday, May 07, 2018

Spring fever

For a week after I broke my toe, I didn't get out much. A couple of weight-lifting sessions at the gym. One bike ride on Sunday. Before the ride, I rifled through the darkest corner of my closet to find what I believe is the oldest gear I haven't yet discarded — a bulky pair of Montrail leather hiking boots that I acquired, secondhand, back in 2001. The boots have Vibram soles and a rigid toe box that effectively immobilize my forefoot, like a cast. Why do people choose to hike in such blister-prone clodhoppers? It's difficult to remember, although I saved them for a reason. As I clomped with my bike up the driveway, I felt safe. Secure. As though I could actually just walk over rugged terrain without rolling an ankle, blundering over rocks or breaking a toe. What a concept.

Thursday rolled around and I was beginning to feel out of sorts — one whole week with only one day outside, not my usual mode of operation. The day prior, my session at the gym had gone well. I'd finally surpassed 100 pounds on my 12-rep lat pulldowns, and was feeling chuffed about that. And also a little guilty. "You are wasting this good patch," I thought.

A good patch — those once-rare but becoming-more-frequent weeks when my body seems to find a healthy rhythm. My blood pressure drops. My resting heart rate also comes down. Sleep happens effortlessly. The air is suddenly full of oxygen, even at 10,000 feet, and I can breathe easy and pedal — even power — up a hill without feeling faint. The experience isn't quite like becoming superwoman, but it's close. My "old normal."

Of course, on Thursday I awoke to uninspiring conditions — 35 degrees, slush all over the roads, heavy slush still falling from the sky, and the Nextdoor Web site blowing up with panicked reports of cars off the road and school buses stuck and drivers turning around and returning home. Eek. The person I once was would have sucked it up and ridden a bike in such nastiness, but Juneau Jill is now just a figment of my past. Boulder Jill stayed home. I justified my decision with the fact that my toe is still sore, and the likelihood of having to push my bike through slush or crashing it on a slimy descent created too much risk. The power went out shortly after I escaped indoors, and for most of the day I got a lot of writing done, free of my usual distractions. Again I felt chuffed.

Then came Friday: Temperatures near 70 degrees, still a lot of snow on the ground, crystal blue skies and clear air. The most gorgeous day. After a week of rest I was bursting with energy, and coasted along almost effortlessly through a fairly stout ride (60 miles, 7,000 feet of climbing) over dirt roads that were still bogged down with peanut butter mud.

This was my favorite ride of 2018 so far — painless climbs, snowy spring scenery, and wild animals out in force (I saw cat tracks in the snow, a bald eagle, turkeys, elk, deer and a moose.) Even the descents were fun (when I ride in the winter, no matter what I wear or how many extra layers I pack, the 3,000-foot descents always hurt like hell.) I rode the Eriksen fat bike in anticipation of sloppy mud and snow-covered trails (ultimately I opted out of the trails, because a foot of unbroken slush promised lots of bike pushing.) Sadly, this was my first ride with "Erik" this year. Snow conditions were so intermittent during the winter. Fat biking opportunities were limited, and I always took advantage of snow days to snowshoe or sled-train for the ITI. Beat recently converted Erik to a 29+ with blingy new parts, and I have been making up for lost time with the beloved bicycle that once carried me all the way to Nome.

Looking toward Boulder amid the long, fun descent ... this one loses close to 4,000 feet. Descending these roads feels like being pummeled with a thousand tiny knives in the winter, but spring temperatures make room for actual enjoyment. So refreshing!

On Saturday I coaxed Beat out for a ride that's best enjoyed this time of year, when a nearby forest road is snow-free but still closed to vehicles. This ride contains one of my coveted Strava segments — those segments that Strava users frequent and start to challenge on their own merit, the way one might a 5K PR. Since I moved to Boulder, I've had to let go of Strava ambition, since my health issues and related decline in fitness correlated with entry into an unbelievably competitive population of athletes (seriously, I was able to skirt top tens on many segments in the Bay Area with its 7 million people. But not here in Boulder, no way.)

Anyway, there are of course some local segments where I value my "personal record." This segment climbs an unmaintained county road that has become severely eroded and somewhat technical. It's always a triumph when I can complete the climb without dabbing, and that rarely happens. There are a couple of power moves near the top of steep pitches that trip me up, nearly every time. Last Sunday — highly motivated by not wanting to land on my broken toe — I actually made it without dabbing and netted my fastest time. On Saturday and then again on Sunday, I faltered twice at the bottom of the hill — tripped up by brand new ruts from the snowstorm earlier in the week — and then dabbed again at two problem spots. Despite the resultant walking, I still netted another two of my top three times. Again, I was chuffed, and am recording them here on my blog, because it's so rare to be proud of an athletic accomplishment these days. ;)

My best time out of dozens came near the beginning of a six-hour ride, mashing the heavy hiking boots up to the 10,000-foot mark at Caribou ghost town. Beat used the afternoon to push through brutal hill repeats in Fern Canyon, part of his preparation for summer mountain races. I've already reached the point of pining for another race in my future, and gave some thought to an Alpine event at the end of August, while simultaneously talking myself out of signing up. Mountain foot races are something I am undeniably bad at in the best of times. I know I won't get better, because my descending/balance management has only worsened with age/experience. I'm not even capable of running at the moment, so at best I'll have three months to train. And although I feel strong right now, and cling to optimism that this good patch will stick, I'm still anticipating more lapses in my health/fitness. It seems likely that I'll again be a hormonal puddle by the end of June. And yet.

Well, at least I can enjoy strong climbs up 16-percent grades while the air is still full of oxygen. Sweat poured down my neck and back, and I had to constantly wipe sunscreen from my eyes. At the top I realized I was nearly out of water, but that's no big deal, this time of year. I cooled my knees in the snow as I scoped handfuls of slush from the most recent storm, filling my hydration bladder. Sweet, icy, back-cooling snow water. The best.

For a week that I'd deemed a rest week, this one ended on a stout note. In three days I rode 130 miles with 17,600 feet of climbing. All of those miles felt great. Even my toe didn't hurt, much. It's difficult to describe how incredible "normal" can feel, with memories of gasping and faltering on these same routes lingering in recent memories. If this relative strength continues, it will become my "new normal" and won't feel quite so amazing anymore. For now I can ride a surge of gratitude, hope, and the tiniest bit of desire to pursue something silly and reckless, once again.