Wednesday, February 14, 2018

I'll be something better yet

Well, the anxiety dreams have returned. In my latest, I'm pulling my winter sled up a steep dune in an endless red-sand desert. The drag is incredible; I can barely move my legs. When I look down, my skin is beet red, bubbling with beads of sweat. I'm following a parallel ski track, a very faint one, and I have to squint because the glare is so bad. It's hot; I feel dizzy. The sun becomes brighter. I'm blinded by white glare, sinking in the sand, gasping for breath, and then I jerk awake. Real sunlight is pouring through my bedroom window (because I slept in until 8:15 a.m., because I haven't been sleeping well at night), and I'm drenched in real sweat. It's 57 degrees inside the house, 20 outside.

Is this what I fear right now? Heat and sweat? Well, yes. What happens beyond my skin begins to feel more manageable than what happens within. I find comfort in the world around me. Saturday morning greeted us with a few inches of snow, and refreshing cold — around 10 degrees.

Beat and I set out for a hike up Bear Peak, with light packs and an easy "taper" pace. I couldn't regulate my temperature well — one minute I was overheated with my jacket unzipped and hat removed, the next chilled and bundled again. My breathing seemed far too labored. Later Beat saw my tracks in the snow and called me out for lazily dragging my feet. "I'm slipping," I thought.

It was a beautiful afternoon, though, with the city shrouded in fog and delicate rime clinging to the charred branches of skeleton trees. It's always worth the effort to spend time outside on a day like this, always. But I wasn't thrilled with whatever was happening beneath my skin. I did not feel exuberant. I did not feel strong. I felt beaten — far, far too soon.

When I come out in the open to admit my fears, people will reassure me. They'll tell me I'm just having pre-race jitters, that I'm tapering, that I'll be fine. And I'll smile politely and nod, because I want to believe it, too. But this is what it feels like to me — like my fitness is so much sand in my fist, slipping through my fingers, scattered by the wind.

On Sunday I took my sled up Niwot Ridge. Beat had a lot to do at home, so I went alone. A surprising amount of snow had accumulated since the last time I trekked up Niwot. The spacious and typically empty trailhead parking lot was bustling with skiers and snowshoers. I didn't want to maneuver my sled in crowds, so I veered toward the less-popular forest road. Surprisingly, only one or two skiers had broken a skin track on this route. At first I snowshoed outside of it, out of respect for skiers, but conditions were incredibly difficult for trail-breaking — a thin layer of fragile wind crust over shin-swallowing sugar snow.

Shamefully I drifted over to the skin track, and realized that my sled so perfectly planed my snowshoe tracks, that it left the trail smoother than before. Indeed, a couple miles later, a skier passed me and complimented my trail. "Ten points for the pulk track," he said. As I looked back at him, I saw that my sled was full of snow — I could barely see the duffel behind a foot-high pile of clumped powder. Because my sled was wider than the skin track, it scooped up snow from both sides, not unlike a plastic shovel. Damn. No wonder this climb was becoming harder and harder. "It's not just me," I thought. Even at this higher altitude, in much tougher conditions, I was feeling better than the previous day.

"Beautiful day," the skier commented.

"Yeah, but windy," I replied. "It's gonna be fierce above treeline."

"We'll deal with that when we get there."

Despite my heavy sled and stupid snowshoes, I more or less kept pace with the skier for more than a mile, shadowing a few hundred meters behind him. He had just left my line of sight for good when I saw him again, scooting toward me at a surprisingly slow rate of speed, for a descending skier.

"You're not going to the ridge?" I asked. He'd already surpassed most of the boring forest road skinning — the only terrain left was the steeper, open slopes above treeline.

"It's nasty up here. And I'm exhausted," he admitted. "You must be shelled, too."

"Yeah, this has been quite the slog. I'll probably only go another half mile, to that research shack."

The skier's track ended, and all that remained was deep, crusted powder. No one else had been up here, at least since wind-driven snow disappeared the tracks — which in the strengthening gale, seemed to be happening in a matter of seconds. I stopped beneath the last larger stand of trees and put on my knee warmers, overboots, wind fleece, balaclava, buff, and mittens. This was not my first Niwot rodeo.

I'd already been at this for three hours and hadn't even broken the five-mile mark yet. It thought about turning back, but the alpine zone is never an easy place to reach, and enduring these conditions is always good practice. I lifted one snowshoe up the 25-degree slope and punched through wind crust into a thigh-high hole. To garner the momentum necessary to move forward, I had to bend forward and thrust my hips against the backward force of the sled — not unlike the cable pull-throughs I do at the gym — then swing my leg sideways like an awkward ballerina so I could punch another hole a few inches ahead. Sometimes my leg anchor stuck, and sometimes the snowshoe slipped backward to where I started. My pace — were there any GPS sophisticated enough to measure such tiny increments of movement— no doubt dropped below 0.5mph. My heart rate shot to the maximum I'm able to maintain.

All the while, shards of snow blasted me in the face. All in all, this wasn't a terrible day on Niwot — sustained winds of 35mph, gusting to 55mph — but an abundance of blowing powder made it feel more intense. My breathing deteriorated quickly. I turned my back to the wind and took a few puffs from my inhaler. I concentrated on taking slower, less shallow breaths. I desperately wanted to turn around, and knew that on a typical endurance training schedule, any hard efforts at this point probably do more harm than good. But I don't have typical endurance fitness. At this point, what I mostly have are doubts. Anything I can do to boost my confidence is worth it. Again I turned to face the wind.

Thrust, punch, breathe. Thrust, punch, breathe, breathe, thrust. Occasionally I found a patch of crust that supported my weight, and walked almost normally. But this would only last a few steps, and then I'd crash through rotten Styrofoam into another thigh-deep drift. The crust was so thick that I'd struggle to pull my foot out of the holes, as though I was real-life sinking in the sand I'd dreamed about. When I couldn't quite extract a foot, I'd drop to a squat, paddle my arms through the snow and crawl-hop forward like a deranged rabbit. This is a situation where I will fully admit that skis would be far preferable to silly snowshoes, although I think skis would also stall out beneath the crust. Really, these were workable conditions for exactly no one, least of all me with my 40-pound sled. But if I could move forward here, and control my breathing here, well ... perhaps I can do it anywhere.

Half-blinded by blowing snow and drifting laterally in search of solid crust, I ended up too far left of the shack. Now with four hours on my watch, having traveled a literal half mile in one hour and 15 minutes, I decided to call it good. Despite engaging the most strenuous activity physically possible for me, at 11,500 feet, I'd maintained reasonable control of my breathing. My heart rate, while fast, hadn't reached concerning levels. I wasn't dizzy. But I was shelled. Truly shelled. I staggered with the wind and started punching a new trail down the slope — because even my deepest postholes were already partially buried in spindrift. It was going to be a long hike out.

Back where the skier had turned around, my beautiful sled track was already filled with snow, and the walking was somehow even more difficult — the slippery spindrift was off camber enough that my right snowshoe kept sliding sideways, which turned my ankle uncomfortably. I wanted to cry, but not in that emotional way that's caught me off guard recently, so I didn't cry. Anyway, being shelled after six miles of hiking just two weeks before you hope to do 350 is not something to cry about ... yet.

The emotions came anyway, though, as trail conditions became easier and I descended into rumination about the state of the world. For that sort of angst, as it often does, iPod helped — The Bleachers with a fitting reminder that we all have deep flaws, and no one is coming to save us. So go ahead and live your life anyway.

All my heroes got tired
All the days, they got short.
And a love that I dreamt of,
Came to me at my worst.

Yeah, the nights I don't remember.
Are the ones I can't forget.

When all your heroes get tired,
I'll be something better yet.
Friday, February 09, 2018

Jump into the fog

 I've felt melancholy this week. It's not the same as the jittery dread one might expect to feel when anticipating an upcoming challenge. This feeling is more like resignation. Dull, gray resignation. But when I step outside of myself for brief intervals, I can see that thin veneer of fog clouding a dynamic landscape of emotions. "This is not mine," I think about the melancholy. But denying its validity doesn't make the fog any less turbid.

 There was a moment on Wednesday, about an hour into a five-hour run. Maybe I should be done with long runs now. I don't know. My legs feel good. My shoulders and arms are strong. Most everything about my body seems dialed. But right now, there's a subtle sputtering. I'd like to blame this on overtraining. That would make it easy. But I can't convince myself. It's difficult to explain the difference between fatigue, and this ... feeling like the engine is running well, but the fuel lines are partially blocked. This feeling is nothing major. I can convince myself of this. The dizziness and breathing desperation haven't returned ... yet. But my fuse has definitely shortened.

Wednesday's trails were ruled by hard, practically blue ice, and rocks of course. Unlike my fancy-footwork success the previous week, I could barely stay upright while wearing microspikes. I slipped and slammed my knee into a nearby tree. "Good, I hope I'm injured," was the only coherent thought that broke through the initial flood of white-hot adrenaline rage. Then, after rage subsided and I realized I was fine, humor made a brief appearance ... "Ha! Where did that come from?" This faded to a highly disproportionate despair, and I had a good cry ... which is, yes, the second time I've cried on a trail for no real reason this month.

"This is October all over again," I thought. Later, I looked up the date of a similarly emotionally-charged bike ride that I titled "Forest Road 509 made me cry." October 13. By the end of October, I was kind of a mess. My breathing was rough enough that I barely pulled myself out of that crater in Maui. But no, there's no such thing as this four-month hormone cycle. You made that up, I told myself. You put this terrible idea in your own head. But the rash and the sleep interruptions and the night sweats and the heart rate spikes ... those are convincingly tangible.

I was a bit dazed as I wheeled down the aisles of Trader Joes on Thursday, picking up the remaining food for my Iditarod drop bags. We're allowed only five pounds for two different pick-up spots along the 350-mile route. Five pounds is really only about two days' worth of food, for sections that could take me as long as four. Yes, there will be a handful of meals along the way to supplement. And of course I can start the race with extra calories, and intend to. But it was important to keep all food as efficient as possible — meaning reasonably nutritious, shelf-stable, non-freezing, and calorie dense. A kind fan of my books, Linda from Iowa, mailed me a delicious trail mix filled with nuts, seeds, and locally sourced chocolate. I supplemented with my own trail mix — nuts, fruit and mini peanut-butter cups as "quick carb" fuel, and then bars, tuna, jerky, meat sticks, and freeze-dried meals.

So I went through the aisles, filling a cart with junk food for both me and Beat, and hesitated at the mini peanut butter cups. "Maybe I won't send in my boxes," I thought. "Maybe it's just that easy."

Then, just as I had the day prior after whacking my knee and hoping I was injured, I wondered where this childish defiance had come from. Even if I'm not the best version of myself, I still want to be out there — a tiny speck amid a white expanse, pressing deeper into the wilderness. There's truth and peace in such an endeavor, and I crave the intensity of emotion and depth of satisfaction that I find in cold, harsh, and beautiful places. But here, in the fog, I run into hesitation. I suppose this is natural.

 On Friday, I went back to town to drop off the boxes. At home, the February sun cast harsh shadows on dry ground. Trees swayed in the gusting wind. It was 55 degrees. I was going to run before heading out, but changed my mind. What does running have to do with my actual fitness, anyway? As I turned onto Flagstaff Road, I was listening to "No Rain" by Blind Melon, which was my favorite song when I was 13 years old. It's also enjoyable for a moody 38-year-old, who still ponders the proverbial "why I start to complain when there's no rain." That's when I noticed the cloud ceiling blanketing the plains.

Within increments measured in quarters of miles, the temperature plummeted — 47 degrees, then 34, then 28. I pulled over at Flagstaff Mountain, right where the edge of the fog skimmed the ground. I was dressed to go to the gym — a short running skirt and T-shirt — when I stepped out of the car into bitingly frosty, humid air.

 I did not have good layers for the weather, and had full knowledge that just a few hundred feet higher, it was nearly 30 degrees warmer. But this was the place I wanted to be. I went for a short walk on the trails — just long enough for my bare legs to turn bright red and my shoulders to tremble gently. With that, I suddenly felt giddy about the prospect of dropping off my boxes. They were going to Alaska, where I would be in just two weeks. Then I went to the gym and increased all of my weights — a few substantially, including my nemesis, the shoulder press — because damn it, I'm going to be as strong as I want to be.

By the time I returned to Flagstaff Mountain, the cloud level had climbed. A few hundred feet higher, the road was so shrouded that I could barely see the headlights of oncoming traffic as they passed. Here, the fog was still gentle, glittering with tiny snow flurries. The temperature had fallen to 20 degrees, and my short skirt and T-shirt that were now mildly damp with sweat. But I still took another walk, enjoying the beautiful contrast of gray on gray. It was a gorgeous early evening. I was grateful I had a chance to experience this place, rather than taking the easy road — chickening out on delivering my boxes, and staying at home where it was sunny and warm.

I've ridden my health rollercoaster long enough that I no longer cling to an illusion that I am in control. I think I get what I get, including some of my more shallow emotions. But beneath the surface are the same passions I've long held, the same truths I've long known. Maybe this is all I need. 
Monday, February 05, 2018

Mood swings

Winter is a volatile season in Boulder. Snow, then heat, then wind, then WIND, then sun. Even if you watch weather forecasts and travel outside nearly every day, it comes to a point where you walk out the door and really have no idea what you're going to get. Such was the case on Thursday, when it was 21 degrees and lightly snowing at 12:30 p.m. I'd failed to check online before I left, but the latest assessment from Boulder County Trail Conditions was somewhat dire:

"Rough conditions on Green today. The warm conditions from a few days ago created some pretty frequent holes where people had punched through in the melting snow. Now those holes are rock hard ankle destroyers. And there is a light coating of snow on top of all the ice so you can't really see it."

And from my friends, who ran part of my planned route in the morning:

"Note: Sunshine is best ascended. It's basically dust on luge. We had spikes, Kahtoolas, new and old, screws, and Yaktrax represented and everyone slipped. No major wipeouts."

Such conditions would have been endlessly frustrating for me, had I anticipated them, and had I been out for a short, focused excursion. But this was a "long" run, my second of four this week, near the end of a three-week "peak" before I head into a taper. I hoped to cover around 20 miles, ascending Green Mountain and Sanitas before making my way down Sunshine Canyon into town. For the first hour, I felt bad. My legs were leaden and the previous day's sled-drag lingered in my tight hamstrings. I noted glare ice under the snow as I plodded up the Green-Bear trail. "Better put on the spikes for the descent," I thought. But then I forgot.

My mood picked up as I shuffled down the northern ridge of Green in summer shoes with soles worn thin. I slipped a few times on the bumpy ice, but these near-misses were sort of exhilarating. "These shoes are good for ice because the lugs are worn down," I told myself. I didn't want to put on the spikes, because I knew I'd hit Chapman and the bike path for a long stretch of bare ground.

But then these places were even worse — bumpier ice, slicker snow, not even a hint of bare gravel or pavement. Stubbornly I left the spikes off, although this decision was never the right one. I was three hours into the run when head fuzziness began to kick in, and I floated up Sanitas in a pleasant reverie that numbed some of the effort.

By the time I hit the descent through Sunshine — the same trail where my friends had slipped while wearing spikes in the morning — I was riding a thrilling wave of invincibility. My legs were as light as snow, dancing along a narrow ledge that cuts across a precariously steep side-slope over Sunshine Creek. Running this trail makes me nervous in the summertime. But here, with the worst conditions winter has to offer, I felt blissfully care-free. When a foot slipped, I'd throw down a trekking pole and pivot my body back into place. With each tricky maneuver, my rhythm didn't break for a second  — a kind of Riverdance that in my imagination was more fluid than any movement my body has ever managed. The consequences of a misstep — not even a misstep, but a typical reaction to rubber hitting ice — were high. And yet, for a blissful 20 minutes, I did not care. More than speed, more than success, this sensation is more intoxicating to me than any other — the illusion of grace.

It wasn't until ten or so minutes after leaving the trail, while trotting down a wet sidewalk along Mapleton Street, that I thought, "Well that was really dumb." A huge smile spread across my face.

One day earlier, I was dragging my 40-pound sled along Fourth of July Creek in a gusty snowstorm. It was warm, so the snow hitting my skin felt like sharp pellets of ice, but I was sweating bullets and had to vent heat where I could. This had been a real grind for five full hours, and my head never entered the care-free reverie that I enjoyed the following day. I made the mistake of trying to continue from the heavily drifted, unmaintained road to the Arapahoe Pass Trail, which clearly hadn't been used in a number of days. The faint skin track was difficult to follow along a steep side-slope drifted with waist-deep snow. But I wanted to get my hours in, so I stubbornly continued, until I'd skittered in dull snowshoes across the glare ice coating a steep drainage. The ice formed veritable slide for at least 50 feet into the trees, which I didn't realize until I was on the other side. "Okay, that was really, really dumb," I thought. This realization did not bring a smile. I turned around right there, and spent 10 minutes scouting a safer way around the frozen waterfall.

As I made my way down the drifted road, moving much more slowly than I'd hoped, my legs were heavy and my emotions were raw. I was thinking about a wonderful film I'd watched earlier in the week, "The Frozen Road" — Ben Page's autobiographical documentary about riding through the Canadian Arctic in the winter as a complete novice. It captures so well the awe, isolation, terror and wonder of solo travel in the frozen North. If you haven't seen this film, I recommend you stop reading this rambling blog post and go watch it right now. (Vimeo link.)

After I watched it, the first thing I did was download music from the film and make a "Fourth of July Sled-Drag" playlist. "Go Solo" by Tom Rosenthal was playing as I shambled down the snow-covered road, hoisting my sled over drifts and picturing a terrifying scene in the film where Ben is lying alone in a tent flapping violently against a storm. Suddenly, the waterworks broke open. It was quite the bout of sloppy sobbing; I couldn't even guess where it had come from, or why I was so upset.

"Damn, the hormonal teenager is back," I thought.

Further evidence that I may be experiencing a bout of hormones — Moar Selfies. This from a warm and also very windy run on Saturday, when I was in a good mood again. To be honest, I have become a little more concerned about my current thyroid health. There are a few signs that not all is well: Nightly sleep interruptions, often waking up in a sweat. My resting heart rate and blood pressure is slightly high. A rash reappeared on my lower legs, which I used to have most of the time before I started taking medication, and since only have seen during "slump months." And then there's this moodiness — the exhilarating highs and inexplicable lows. This seems to be my hormonal cycle right now, and I'd worry less about it if the timing wasn't so awful. Thankfully, one area that doesn't seem to be affected right now is my breathing. I'm moving well enough, and I'm not about to complain just because I'm a bit slower than I was in December. All I can do now is try to blame some of this on heavy training, head into a taper, and hope for the best.

I felt good for our sled-drag on Sunday, joined by friends Wendy and Jorge. It's been a challenge to find consistent snow anywhere nearby, so I took some advice from skiers to follow the unmaintained and mostly untraveled Forest Road 505. Skiers only use this route for a short distance to access slopes nearby. Beyond that is an exposed plateau that has been scoured clean by the wind, which deters even the skiers.

Beat making his way across the plateau — it was another very windy day. In the exposed areas, the average wind speed neared 50mph, a few gusts over 70mph. The crushing weight I feel amid this kind of wind is no longer a surprise, but it's still shocking. Even in warm temperatures (around 30F), it still feels incredibly cold.

Forest Road 505 was at times scoured bare, and others covered in rolling drifts the size of railroad cars. Beat actually managed to navigate well, which impressed me, as I've even biked this road before (in summer conditions) and didn't have a clue where we were. We made our way deep into the forest, breaking trail through a thick wind crust that coated heavy, sticky snow. Conditions were challenging on the descent, and almost tear-inducing for the 1,600-foot climb. Fist-sized snowballs stuck to the cleats of my snowshoes, and the past three weeks' efforts weighed heavily on my legs.

Beat and I got a little ahead of Jorge and Wendy, but we just couldn't stand long amid the hurricane gusts and blowing snow. It was exhilarating, but not in quite the same way as risking a broken wrist to dance on glare ice. I was a little more genuinely frightened up here. We come expecting these conditions, prepared for them, but that doesn't make them any easier. Which I suppose is the appeal — to find, as Ben Page expressed in his film, these places were one can feel so small. Where all of the little things — and most things are little things — don't matter. You just walk, and breathe, and feel grateful for the privilege of being alive.

We reunited with our friends, and peacefulness again returned to the land. I hope to put in two more long efforts this week, complete most of my food packing and organizing, and then dial everything back and try to get my head in order. If nothing else, maybe I can tap into that "happy if a bit reckless" teenager emotion in Alaska.