Thursday, July 30, 2015

But ... be brave

Up at 9,000 feet, with frost coating my bivy sack, it was finally cool enough that I made it through the night without dousing myself in sweat ... or at least that's what I assumed. There were a few coughing bouts, but I'd become used to those. Night coughing was just part of the waste removal routine, like peeing. But the night sweats were disconcerting. They caused feverish, weird dreams and sucked all the moisture from my body, leaving me dehydrated, exhausted, and achy in the morning. If I could stay away from the night sweats, I actually woke up feeling okay. 

It helped that I woke up here, on the shoreline of Wind River Lake. It was a day-use picnic area, but I stashed my bike in the outhouse for bear safety and did a little stealth camping down the shoreline. I sat on a picnic table eating my morning bars and breathing frosty air that seemed to flow freely into my lungs. Today was going to be a good day. I could feel it.

Coasting along the Brooks Lake Road, it didn't take long before self-generated dust clouds were already aggravating my breathing. The last time I rode the Divide, this entire segment was covered in snow and mud, forcing a gooey slog that required more than three hours to travel six miles. I thought it was so terrible then, but right now, I missed it. I missed the snow. I missed the mud. The Divide had become this hot, dry, dusty, mosquitoey place that was tearing me apart.

"The only reason I got through this the first time was because 2009 was a wet and cold year," I thought. I'm fair-skinned, heat-sensitive, allergy-prone, and possibly (apparently) a little bit asthmatic. My body is just not well-designed for the summertime outdoors.

After a refreshingly frigid coast down Highway 26, I found the Lava Mountain Lodge opening up their small store at 7 a.m. I was just in time for morning coffee and a microwaved breakfast burrito. Heaven! Sarah Jansen was there and offered to let me take a shower in her room. It was tempting, as I hadn't had a shower since Helena. But I was already considering shooting for an early day in Pinedale and spending another full night indoors with lots of available fluids, in hopes of giving my ragged lungs some rest and relief. 

Once I was nicely saturated with caffeine, I started up Warm Springs Road with my new old secret weapon — cinnamon bears. Even though I'd already had protein bars and a burrito in the morning, I intended to keep a steady supply of sugar coming in throughout the day, to see if that helped with my energy levels. I'd spent the early days of the Divide really trying to make the nuts, cheese, and dried fruit diet work. Constantly needing to process complex calorie sources — and thus avoiding them when I was struggling — only seemed to deepen my physical malaise. No, candy it would have to be.

The route veered up a new segment above Union Pass, a steep and rocky climb on ATV doubletrack that emptied into a high-altitude basin with breathtaking views of the Wind River Mountains. It was one of my favorite segments of the route, and I relished the sensation of floating high above the world as I laid into the pedals with all of the cinnamon-bear-fueled energy I could muster. I just wanted to be a cyclist again, to breathe that fire again, to move freely through the world in the way I knew my body was capable. I just wanted a day that wasn't a struggle from the start ... that wasn't the same amount of struggle whether I was pushing up a hill or passed out on a picnic table ... that wasn't a struggle just to do the most basic task in a terrestrial animal's existence. I was tired of struggling to breathe.

Sarah passed shortly after the descent and complimented me on keeping up with my daily mileage goals, which I hadn't really calculated, but I was somewhere in the range of 1,300 miles on day ten. "I'm only going to get slower," I said with a resigned sigh. Sarah mentioned she was planning to stop in Boulder, which is about twelve miles past Pinedale, in hopes of getting the Great Divide Basin out of the way in one big effort the following day. I thought this might be possible for me as well, if I could clear out my congestion. I'd ride to Atlantic City during the day and tackle the Basin overnight, when the wind, dust, and heat likely wouldn't be as bad. Then I'd be in Colorado, home to high-elevation coolness and afternoon thunderstorms, and maybe, just maybe, I'd could conquer this crud, once and for all. 

Although these optimistic hopes flitted through my thoughts, my mind's wanderings increasingly slipped into the stagnant tailings pond of my frustration and malaise. I wanted to keep fighting, but why? My old mantra, "Be Brave, Be Strong," whispered from a far distance, but these words no longer had the tone of triumph and hope that they once did. "Be Strong" sounds mocking when when you're in the grips of progressively deepening physical weakness. "Be Brave" sounds sarcastic when the battle is clearly futile, and soon I only heard this phrase the way Modest Mouse sang it in what had become my favorite song to listen to on the Divide — "Be Brave" 

Well the Earth doesn't care, and we hardly even matter
We're just a bit more piss to push out its full bladder
And as our bodies break down into all their rocky little bits
Piled up under mountains of dirt, and silt,
And still the world, it don't give a shit,

But ... Be brave! Be brave! Be brave! Be brave! Be brave! (Be brave!)

It may sound like I had already given up hope, but I really hadn't. I clung to the theory that dust and allergies were the root cause of my malady, that I just needed to get out of Wyoming to find relief, and that I'd be healthy again by the time I reached the hard sections in New Mexico. When the nihilistic thoughts crept in and questioned why I needed to keep pedaling, I'd argue back. "I want to be brave. I want to be strong. I want to feel alive. Isn't that enough?"

Often, people who participate in these endurance events compare the experience to living a whole life in a day. In the case of the Tour Divide, it's a few weeks, but the sentiment in the same. When I look back on my first Divide ride, I remember it as distinct periods of wide-eyed childhood, angsty adolescence, strong young adulthood, and wizened but weary older adulthood. This time around I jumped very quickly into the elderly years, and in retrospect, believe the experience served as a window into old age. My mind swirled with a barrage of hopes and dreams, and often utter awe: Look where you are! Look! But when the dullness set in, I'd stare off into the distance with a gray pall over my thoughts and emotions, and I'd begin to understand how someone could wile away the last years of their lives staring at a television. Even more than my weakened body, my mind craved a deep and dreamless sleep that wouldn't come.

I understood the desire, too, to rage, rage against the dying of the light. I devoured cinnamon bears and demanded more from my legs on the rolling descent from Union Pass. But in the Green River Valley, I ran up against a wall of wind fortified by relentless dust. A steady stream of vehicles kept the dust in motion on that bumpy road, and my breathing became alarmingly raspy. I started coughing, and then I was gasping, and then I was sprawled in the sage next to the road, clutching my chest and panicking.

I couldn't do this anymore, I couldn't do this anymore, I couldn't do this anymore ... but, breathe, breathe, breath, breath. Be brave, be brave, be brave. (Be brave!)

I managed to calm my breathing, but after that I was terrified of hard efforts, and even more scared of the clouds of dust, which I couldn't do anything about. The asthma attack had frightened me, but even more than that, it left me utterly exhausted, in a way that even cinnamon bears couldn't cure. I didn't feel sleepy, even, just empty. After the attack, there were 35 more miles into Pinedale that I remember almost nothing about.

Yet optimism stayed with me. I do remember walking into a hotel lobby, pulling down my face mask, and taking a deep breath. My lungs were so congested that it stopped short and caused me to cough violently, but I let myself believe this was my first healing breath of dust-free indoor air, which I planned to spend the next ten hours breathing. I didn't even care about a shower, or access to real food, or even sleep. Oxygen is and always will be the top priority.

Monday, July 27, 2015

At home with the ghosts in the national park

Night sweats woke me up before my dawn alarm, so I stripped off my soaked clothing and draped it over my bike before crawling back into the bivy on top of my sleeping bag. Sometime later I awoke in a fit of coughing, burst out of the bivy and stumbled barefoot through prickly bushes to vomit. It was just the coughing that made me throw up, but the result left me feeling weak and feverish. I laid down on the dirt in my underwear, feeling the cool Earth on my clammy skin, and took quick and shallow breaths as I stared up at the tree canopy, framed by stars. A minute or two passed before I stood up, shivering heavily, and crawled back into my sleeping bag, which was wet.

Before these little emergencies, I'd been so deeply asleep that I floated through them with a kind of disoriented detachment. When dawn came, I wasn't sure if any of it had happened. But my clothes were still draped over my bike, and my head was pounding. Early mornings had turned from being the best part of the day to the worst. But nights weren't so great either.

My Tour Divide has been a difficult experience to recap, because it reads as though I was miserable and sick nearly all of the time. There were lots of pleasant and enjoyable stretches that don't necessarily make the trip highlights reel when illness factored so heavily into the experience as a whole. I suffered through some difficult bouts, but the simple act of waking up to sunlight, eating terrible protein bars, and getting back on my bike would improve my outlook — and my physical state — immensely.

I enjoyed quite a few good miles in the morning, with smoother pedaling down the remainder of the rail trail (surface conditions improve considerably as it descends along the Warm River) and a nice spin through Idaho farm country with the Grand Tetons looming over the horizon. I collected water from a sprinkler that tasted like ginger ale, and found a smashed brownie from Whitefish in my frame bag, which made me immensely happy.

Still, the miles of easy breathing were now entirely in the past. Even on short climbs, I often had to stop before the top of the hill to catch my breath. I was doing just that on a pullout above the Fall River when a cyclist approached. It was Josh Daugherty. He had this intense look on his face that I can only describe as crazy eyes, but he did stop to say hello.

"Where's Brett?" I asked.

"Oh, back there," Josh said, gesturing down the road.

"Did you guys stay at the campground?"

Josh shook his head. He told me they stayed back on the rail trail, probably very near the spot where I camped, after both of them crashed several times in the dark. After being turned away from Subway, both of them were frustrated and had some sort of tense exchange. Brett was the veteran, Josh explained, and he respected Brett's wisdom, but he was unhappy with how the race was going so far. Their sleep had been poor, and their stops weren't efficient. So he was riding ahead this morning. He didn't have a plan, he said. He just needed some space to think.

"People keep telling me not to worry about guys passing you, that it's just about finishing. But that's not what I want." Josh paused for several seconds as he turned his crazy-eyed expression toward the mountains. "I want to chase dots."

The emotion resonated with me. I don't consider myself an overtly competitive person, but I admire that drive in others. It's a fire that can fuel great things, or spectacular meltdowns, but either way, it makes for a compelling narrative.

"You seem strong," I said. "You should go for it."

Josh thanked me and headed down the road. I didn't expect to see him again. A week and a half later, he posted this update:

"On day 9, I woke up frustrated and rode away from my company, sort of by accident, just wanting to work out the angst. Then a switch inside me flipped and I realized I was going solo and there was no turning back. I was done racing with fear. I would rather fail riding my heart out than ride safely to the finish. I wanted to find the very bottom of me, and to answer questions about myself that I didn't believe I would get another chance to again. Those guys that had been passing me were riding their hearts out. They looked shelled and exhausted in their battle for some place in the mid 20's or 30's or wherever. There's a mocking title for those guys, the "mid-pack heroes", and it's not a flattering title, but it's probably fair. And I wanted to be one of them. So I joined the battle and the true meaning of the event revealed itself to me. If I raced without fear and gave the very best of myself then I would be happy. If I fought bravely and opened myself to whatever experience the journey had in store for me then I could be satisfied with myself."

Josh was the twelfth person to finish the Tour Divide in 18 days, 12 hours and 19 minutes. The fact that he didn't really start racing until nearly halfway through the ride, and turned what I considered a "clinging to 21 days if everything else goes well" pace to an 18.5-day finish, is impressive. In my opinion, Josh's late-race push was one of the more incredible, if quieter, performances of this year. No doubt it was a meaningful journey for him.

When I read Josh's post, it made my heart shudder a little. "I wanted to find the very bottom of me." This is what I had wanted, too. Not to race without fear, as fear is one of the emotions I seek and embrace in these endeavors. But I did want to race with an open heart, without expectation, free from self-doubt, fixed perceptions, and the limitations of my body. "Those limitations are in my mind," I'd tell myself. "I can choose something more."

But I was growing weary of the battle, a deepening struggle just to do what I thought should come easily to me. How can I explore my own inner depths when I can barely stay afloat in the shallow end? I wasn't fighting to be great. I was fighting to be a vaguely adequate version of myself, and that in itself was very discouraging. Weakness was winning. In these endeavors, who do we have to blame but ourselves?

The Ashton-Flagg Ranch Road cut me to shreds. Wrapping around the northern edge of the Tetons, this wide gravel road was extremely dusty and constantly under siege by Saturday traffic. I descended into Flagg Ranch in a state of distress, took a long break at the resort while sucking down slushy drinks in the lobby, and still felt no better as I climbed toward Grand Teton National Park. There was a tiny, 500-foot climb on pavement past the resort. Refusal to allow myself a break on such an easy ascent resulted in my second breathing attack of the trip. Similar to when the bull charged me, my airways tightened and I began gasping. But here I wasn't frightened, and I wasn't doing anything difficult. I was just weak.

I coasted down to Jackson Lake almost in tears, although this wouldn't yet qualify as my cry for the day. I still didn't feel confident that my lungs wouldn't seize up again, so I pulled over at a picnic area and laid down on a table. Weekend traffic streamed past, but the picnic area was empty. One of the most gorgeous and popular views of the Tour Divide — the snow-capped Tetons towering behind a sparkling Jackson Lake — was in view as I tapped an update into my satellite messenger: "Really sucking wind. So much dust I can barely breathe." It seemed like a good idea to alert others of my condition in case I lost consciousness and couldn't be roused.

I napped for maybe fifteen minutes and woke up feeling a little better. My breathing had improved and I no longer felt as though I might suffocate. As I pedaled toward the park exit, a man on a road bike caught up to me and slowed to chat for a while. Mark was a retired law enforcement officer from Florida who worked summers at a Wyoming ranch. We talked about cycling, horseback riding, self-defense techniques and grizzly bears as I grew more winded. Mark had slowed down quite a bit to keep my pace, which was hovering between 12 and 13 miles per hour, but it was killing me. Slowing to something less than 12 mph seemed pretty embarrassing, given I was a bike racer and all that, so I worked to keep it up as he spun easy. I told him about my breathing struggles. "Must be the elevation," he said. "Gets me too."

"Yeah," I said. "It probably is just the elevation."

Mark turned off my route after a few miles, but it was nice to have his company while it lasted. It helped me ride better, I decided, because I wasn't so fixated on feeling bad. Just before sunset I had my big cry for the day, though, over mosquito bites. I'd accumulated dozens of bites over the past week, and the Buffalo Valley bugs were the worst yet. I was not hesitating to drench myself in DEET, and they still found unprotected patches of skin to ravage. I'm allergic to mosquitoes. Usually the bites just swell to quarter-sized, dark red welts. But as they accumulate, the reactions sometimes extend to more extreme swelling, watery eyes and sneezing. Once, after picking up about thirty bites during a hike, I came down with a fever. I wondered if mosquitoes were to blame for my respiratory distress. This wondering turned to bawling, and once I had the daily meltdown out of my system, I felt better.

I still had to race the mosquitoes though, and lack of breaks caused my lungs to start constricting again. It was another dizzy battle to schlep myself up Togwotee Pass, where I planned to camp on Brooks Lake. At one point I decided, "This day hasn't been all that bad. It probably won't get much worse." But of course I didn't know.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

This heart of mine is just some broke machine

Beat finally asked me about the strange titles of my Tour Divide posts. They're lyrics from the most recent Modest Mouse album, "Strangers to Ourselves." I listened to this album rather incessantly during the ride, and it became the background score to many high and low moments along those dusty roads. The lyrics fit well with the stubborn optimism and strife of a slow decline, with just enough humor and nihilism to beat back despondency. Now I can't think back to the Tour Divide without hearing these songs in the background. After I wrote about "Of Course We Know" on day three, it just made sense to go with the theme. I suppose that's strange, but hey ... this is my blog. 

Now, where was I? Oh yes, Big Sheep Creek canyon in southern Montana. In the morning I woke up with a piercing headache and disorientation. I blinked through pounding confusion as the world came into focus — high cliffs loomed over the narrow canyon, but just enough sunlight swept over the rim to illuminate patches of sage near my camp. The outside of my bivy sack had the usual layer of dew, but the inside of my sleeping bag was soaked, as though I'd been sweating heavily through the night. I'd slept the sleep of the dead for six hours without waking up once to cough, and now my lungs felt like they were filled with sand. I tried to force a cough as I stood up, but this only made me dizzy. 

Pedaling down the road, my head continued to pound, and nausea discouraged me from eating anything. "Coffee," I thought. "I just need coffee and breakfast." But this dizzying headache surpassed typical morning malaise. I'd become accustomed to feeling my best first thing in the morning. And I'd slept for six solid hours! Maybe I needed those midnight coughing fits to clear my lungs. It had seemed like a crazy theory up until that point — this notion of slow suffocation because my lungs were too clogged to properly filter the air. I still doubted this theory had medical merit, but maybe I really wasn't getting enough oxygen?

I pedaled into Lima just in time for the morning rush, with at least eight bikes parked outside Jan's Cafe along the usual truckers and interstate travelers. It became clear as soon as I stepped inside that breakfast was going to happen at glacial pace, but I didn't really care. My health was declining and I'd already lost a fair amount of motivation for racing the Tour Divide. I just wanted to survive.

I sat down at a table with Eleanor, Brett Stepanik and Josh Daugherty. I'd met Brett and Josh the previous afternoon at Russ's lodge. We had lunch together and among the usual Tour Divide chatter, I learned that Brett was a dedicated photographer who was carrying a large film camera and dozens of rolls of film in his messenger bag, and Josh was a soon-to-be new father. They'd slept up in the canyon the previous night as well, and were taking advantage of cell reception to make calls and check news from the outside world. The conversation I'd interrupted was about the race standings. Josh informed us that the next person to leave would be in 28th position — then 29th, 30th, and so on.

I couldn't help but curl my lips in a little smirk, because I found it amusing that he'd taken the time to extrapolate this information. My last few days had been such a struggle that my mind had wandered far away race mentality. It was jarring to realize that this was still very much what we were all out here doing, out here on these lonely roads, battling with everything we had for weeks of our lives — we were just jostling for position in a race. But then my next thought was, "30th out of 150? That is not so terrible." I was somewhat surprised to learn that the entire field hadn't passed me, at least not yet.

Beyond Lima, the route travels east through the Centennial Valley. This is one of my favorite segments of the GDMBR, largely because it's the first time the route travels across a wider expanse of open space. Many cyclists dislike it for this same reason, but I love the sense of freedom and wonder that these empty spaces spark. I can look toward a strip of road or hillside that's three or six or ten miles away, realized I'm heading that way, and by the time I get there, enough time will have passed that it will be slightly different. Animals will skitter by, the wind will stir up dust, clouds will cast moving shadows, grass will flow like waves in the breeze, and all of these beautiful details will continue dancing on a stage that at first glance looks desolate and stagnant.

Of course, this is still the Continental Divide, where imposing mountains and their volatile weather are never far from view. There was a fierce south wind that slowed my speed to five miles an hour when I had to ride directly into it. Worse than that, the wind kicked up so much dust that my already congested lungs developed the alarming sensation that they were on the verge of closing up again. Whenever I felt my airways constricting, I stopped and turned around to cough and pull up the buff I'd started using as a face mask. But if I was honest with myself, all the fabric really did was block air flow, because my lungs were already filled with gunk. Still, it seemed I should prevent more dust from entering my airways, if I could.

Concentrated slow pedaling did at least keep me ahead of thunderstorms. Near the pass, Brett and Josh caught up. We rode together for a short distance, but they quickly outpaced me. Sarah Jansen and one of the Australian Daves passed earlier as well, riding seemingly twice the speed I could muster. "How are these people so fast?" I wondered. It occurred to me that at this point we were still on a 20- to 21-day pace, and actually, if I looked at it objectively, I was still having a good race. I was pain-free, managing my sleep well, still mostly sticking to my nutrition plan, being relatively efficient (the two-plus-hour stop in Lima notwithstanding), and damn it, I was still keeping up with fast people. But I was fading. I could feel myself fading. If I didn't kick this lung crud soon, my strength was going to run out.

Red Rock Pass — the iconic state line sign that everybody on the Tour Divide photographs. In the preceding miles, Josh and Brett used some colorful language to describe how excited they were to be leaving Montana. I was actually ahead of them again at this point, because they stopped to chat with some locals in a bike shop van. The locals said they knew Eleanor and were driving out to surprise her. They also offered beer, which I refused but found it amusing that their trail magic was actually terrible for exhausted bikers with nearly a thousand miles on their legs who were climbing up the Continental Divide. I'd probably pass out or vomit before I made my way through a beer. It was more sabotage than support.

I reached the Subway at Mack's Inn with just twenty minutes to spare — it closed at 7 p.m., which I didn't realize until they turned Josh and Brett away a half hour later. I was not feeling well but forced down a chicken footlong just the same. The sun was still up and I hoped to get some rail trail miles out of the way before I collapsed for the night. My lungs were bad; breathing was difficult, but at least the rail trail was flat.

The rail trail is another infamous segment of the Divide — 30 miles along an old rail bed that cuts a thin, straight line through the forest atop a thick bed of volcanic sand. In 2009, I rode the rail trail in a rainstorm. While the trail was badly washboarded then, the rain did tamp down the sand, and I had *no* idea just how slow and sandy this thing was. Even after letting as much air out of my tires as I dared, I still swerved and sank and barely gained enough traction to grind out five miles per hour. Adding insult to indignity, it was a Friday evening and several dune buggies were crawling the trail. About two miles in, I got stuck behind an older couple in a one of these vehicles, inching forward at an unfathomably slow pace. I mean, I caught up to them while pedaling a jerky 5 mph, and they might as well have been standing still. The trail was only as wide as their vehicle, so all I could do was inch behind them. Their speed was too slow for me to keep traction, so eventually I had to walk, and still I was shadowing them without losing ground. How could this be fun? How could this possibly be an enjoyable Friday night activity, to drive a dune buggy at two miles per hour on a flat bumpy trail through a forest with no views?

Finally I found a place to get around them, which I did by jogging through brush. For good measure I walked a fair bit farther so they could see how slow they were actually going, then remounted my bike and commenced grinding the pedals. The route passed through several residential areas, and each intersection had a sign for the "National Recreation Trail."

"Recreation? How could this be fun for anyone?" I wondered. "It's crap to bike, it's bumpy and slow to drive, it would be awful to run or hike. They should designate this a national torture trail."

Clearly, I was becoming very grumpy, and it only went downhill from there. The sun set and the trail emerged in these pretty wetlands, where the ruts and washboards were much worse. Even at the blistering pace of five miles per hour, I swerved enough to get bucked off my bike. I negotiated the crash landing badly and ended up with my face in the sand.

This ignited what would become a nightly incident for me — a solid ten minutes, at least, of shameless sloppy bawling. Being charged by a bull the previous evening is what set off my first emotional outburst. But every night thereafter I'd find something to cry about, and then I'd really indulge in the cry. Looking back to those nights, when thoughts and emotions were muted behind a thick, dull haze, I think on some level I was clinging to anything I could still feel. Even if that feeling was despair, over something quite minor, I embraced it with as much vigor as I could muster. Until there was nothing left.

I hated the rail trail so much. I wanted to get it all out of the way before morning, but then I crashed a second time, and then a third, before finally conceding that I was riding quite badly. I followed a faint deer trail to a hidden cove above the Warm River, then dislodged the contents of my bike bags. On this night I still had some lucidity, so I went through the ritual of wet-wiping the dust away from my skin, slathering Neosporin on my butt, and opening my sleeping bag all the way, so hopefully I wouldn't wake up soaked.

Within seconds of laying down I was out — which is not like me at all. I'm a terrible sleeper, more so in unfamiliar camping situations, and especially so in endurance racing situations. But it had been a long time since I'd truly exhausted myself.