Monday, November 12, 2018

Impressed with the winter so far

Halloween morning
Beat and I are winter enthusiasts. That was one of our incentives for moving from the Bay Area to Boulder — I mean, living near big mountains is okay and all, but winter. We weren't going to see the dark, cold, constant barrage of ice and snow that we might find in Interior Alaska. But I envisioned crisp, sunny, glittering snow days similar to those I enjoyed during my youth in the comparable climes of Salt Lake City.

Of course it was unrealistic to believe that after three decades of climate change, any winter could resemble my childhood nostalgia. But the winter of 2017-18 effectively never happened. I trained for my Iditarod race by towing a water-jug-loaded cart up and down a dirt road. I rode my mountain bike while wearing shorts up to 10,000 feet on the winter solstice. Beat and I dragged sleds across rocks well above treeline. There were bouts of snow and cold, but they were little more than whispers on the relentless wind. The day before we left for Alaska in February, we got a half foot of snow and temperatures dipped to -11F.

"This feels like the first day of winter," I thought at the time.

It's far too soon to guess how the winter of 2018-19 will turn out, but it's off to a great start. Our first snow at home come on Oct. 7, and there have been weekly storms since. In the past month I have probably ridden my fat bike through more miles of Colorado snow than the last two winters combined (considering I didn't take my fat bike out even once last season, which I know is a terrible thing to confess.) There have been plenty of warm days, too. Of course I don't mind. Colorado is its best idiosyncratic self when it's 60 degrees and sunny one day, 15 and snowing the next.

 We were able to enjoy the 60-degree weather on Saturday with our friend Daniel, who dropped in for a visit and a late-morning run. The sun beat down as we descended the rocky trail through Eldorado Canyon, scrambled a climber's access trail, then ascended the grassy foothills toward Shadow Canyon. This grassy section never fails to spark a mild asthma episode ... even now that pollen season is long over and I'm not as allergic to grass as I once was. But it's always like this here. I can sense my airways tightening, like tiny fists, and feel pressure building through each exhalation. This sensation is notably different from my more persistent breathing problems, which is why I don't believe exercise-induced asthma is my main issue. This is just my less frustrating, "grassy field problem." Here I can use my inhaler and instantly feel much better. I wish it always worked that way.

Still, besides the short bout of wheezing, I felt refreshingly good on this run. Beat and Daniel maintained a reasonably brisk pace and I was able to keep up with them, at least until they dropped me like a hot rock on the final descent. I think I'm starting to come around. I wish I could be more excited about this, but I fear it's just the upswing in an interminable pattern.

 On Sunday we woke up to temperatures in the teens and snow. I love just being at home on days like this — nowhere we need to go, nothing we need to do besides stoke the fire and enjoy the silent dance of snowflakes against a black and white landscape.

 We did go out for a hike in the afternoon, descending into South Boulder Creek canyon. 

 This is one of my favorite nearby destinations. We didn't stop long, though ... it was 10 degrees and the early evening twilight was rapidly approaching.

On Monday, Betsy and I had tentatively planned a mountain adventure. But the timing didn't work out — there was so much new snow that the roads were a mess and trails were likely to be buried. Our official snow total, recorded by the nearest NWS weather station, was 14.2 inches. The Denver Airport only saw two inches and even the local ski hill — 2,000 feet higher — reported eight inches. Clearly, this storm saved the bulk of its goodness just for me. Temperatures were still in the mid-20s, but the harsh Colorado sun was decimating the snowpack quickly, so I set out in the morning before it was all gone.

 Thanksgiving turkeys on the road.

 Sampling the trails at Walker Ranch. I took this photo after retreating from my go-to climb, which is sheltered in the shade and held onto a heavy layer of shin-deep snow. Pedaling near my limit netted maybe two miles per hour, which is one of my favorite aspects of snow biking: So much work, so little reward, which paradoxically becomes its own reward. I'd stripped off all of my insulation layers and still managed to drench my base layer in sweat. After about twenty minutes I decided that this glacier pace was perhaps too little reward, and turned around. The descent was steep enough to reel me in with the thrill of speed, then grab the front tire and whip me into the ground. My left elbow absorbed most of the impact, and continued throbbing painfully for the rest of the ride (and is now even more swollen and sore.) Grumble grumble grumble.

After crashing I didn't go home right away, even though that probably would have been best. You just can't waste a day like this. It might be the last big snow this season. Who can know?

Walker was a huge slog, though. Any uphill required bike pushing with a sore arm. Lots of effort. Some pain. Grumble grumble grumble. Still, it was a gorgeous outing. I was exhausted after 17 miles, and fairly bonked because I wasn't expecting my quick neighborhood ride to take nearly four hours, so I had no snacks. But I did feel strong. I'm trying to harness this feeling to shore up optimism — that it will be a cold, snowy, fierce and strong winter after all. 
Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Self experimenting

 On Monday I went to the gym armed with a heart rate monitor, a pulse oximeter, a pencil and a sheet of paper. I walked past the weight room and stepped onto a machine I almost never touch — the treadmill. My own poor handwriting lined up my plan for the next hour: Three minutes at 2 mph, three minutes at 3 mph, three minutes at 4 mph, and so on up to 10 mph, with a three-minute walking rest between each faster interval. After 6 mph (which to be honest is about as fast as I ever run outside), I only bumped up a half mile per hour for each increment. It wasn't all that scientific, but I wanted to satisfy my own curiosity in a controlled setting. Could I boost my heart rate to something higher than 160 beats per minute? What is my blood oxygen saturation at a fairly typical aerobic pace? Can I run at six-minute-mile pace for any length of time? I felt as nervous as I used to at the start of races — anxious that I would either shoot off the back of the treadmill or pass out or both.

Standing there, nervous, at 5,100 feet above sea level, my SpO2 was 99 percent and my heart rate was 77 bpm. At 2 mph my heart rate climbed to 88, and my SpO2 dropped to 97 percent. During each interval the oxygen saturation reading continued to fall, in steady increments. 93 percent while jogging at 5 mph with a heart rate of 131 bpm. 91 percent at 6.5 mph with a heart rate of 152. 88 percent while galloping at 8 mph with a heart rate of 171. (171! I haven't seen that in a while.) By the end of the third minute, my heart was still beating strong and my legs felt fantastic, but dizziness was circling around the edges of my mind.

At 8.5 mph, sweat was spinning off my body like a rotating sprinkler. I felt bad for the lady wearing slacks and a nice blouse while walking on the treadmill next to me. At 9.5 mph my heart rate boosted to 181. This felt like an enormous victory. That's my generic maximum heart rate — 220 minus 39. I clasped my left hand around my right wrist to steady it as much as possible. The SpO2 reading was 84 percent. Droplets of sweat spun around me, defying gravity. Dark rings crept into my field of vision. I wasn't nauseated and I wasn't in pain, but damn it, I was definitely going to pass out. I pounded all of the buttons and blindly lowered my speed to 3 mph. For the next three minutes I hobbled along, smudging all of the pencil markings in sweat as I shakily recorded my findings.

"Probably the reason I always feel like there's not enough oxygen in my blood, is because there's not enough &#! oxygen in my blood."

After those three minutes ran out, because I am above all a masochist, I bumped the speed up to 10 mph. Six-minute mile! Six-minute mile! I was only able to hold the speed for two minutes. I couldn't hold my hand still to test my SpO2 with the pulse oximeter. It took every last ounce of concentration just to maintain my position. I mashed at the buttons until the treadmill slow downed down enough to gently nudge me off the back of the machine. I didn't even bother with the planned cool-down. I just stumbled around on the wooden floor, watching late afternoon sunlight stream through the windows, saturated with bliss. Was this hypoxia? The rapture of the deep? As warmth coursed through my blood, I decided I'd just received a dose of the hormone my body doesn't produce as much of as it once did, because there's no real need when my muscles are already conditioned for more than wheezy soft-pedaling ... endorphins.

 The best I can gather from recent research is that doing aerobic exercise with blood oxygen saturation in the 80s isn't the worst thing, but it's not entirely normal, either. The cause could be an exhausting number of things — obstruction in my lungs, an issue with my heart, poor breathing technique, and on and on. I want to gather a little more data and insight before I go down yet another medical road. My endocrinologist and allergist have helped improve important health issues for me, but this one — the one where I breathe poorly and feel badly while exercising — is still in place and as nebulous as it's ever been. I'm wavering between "Just ignore it and maybe exercise a bit less and try to stop complaining so much," and "Spend all the money, see all the doctors."

While I make up my mind, I'll continue to gather data, mainly for my own peace of mind. When it comes to delusions of control over a chaotic world, perceived patterns make a wonderful placebo.

 Boulder's local ski area opened on Wednesday, and I've been feeling a little FOMO for snowy adventures. Election Day was another frazzled mess of work deadlines and fretting, so I was in need of some hypoxic relaxation. I took the fat bike to Rollinsville and set out for what turned out to be a 26-mile, five-hour ride over two mountain passes. I felt refreshingly good — dare I say better than I have in about a month. The weather was sunny, almost calm, and 22 degrees. Just perfect.

 I continued to take SpO2 and heart rate readings along the way, although this outdoor ride at 9,000-11,000 feet with snow resistance is even less scientific than my treadmill test. Still, the readings fairly reliably measured my "feels like" status. When I still felt fierce and strong, I saw numbers in the low 90s. When I felt myself faltering, I started seeing 80s. My heart was working like a champ, though, with plenty of time in zone 3 and even zone 4. Grinding through several inches of snow up a 10-12 percent grade requires that level of effort, hypoxic or not.

 The descent into Pickle Gulch was the epitome of fun snow biking — a solid base masked by several inches of powder, so I could rip at top speed over a surface as soft and silent as water. I'd had a good climb and a fun descent, and was nearing cloud 9 of Jill Heaven, so I wasn't about to stop there. I turned up Apex Valley, a daunting climb even when it's dry summer gravel. There were moments when I thought I might black out or slip off the back of my bike as it crawled up the steep grade, but my heart kept beating, so I kept grinding.

 Near the top I encountered a California couple with a strange armored vehicle. They were standing outside in the sunshine and chatting with a fast-talking local man on a snowmobile. The man rattled off a barrage of facts about this luxury expedition RV he didn't even own, while simultaneously peppering me with questions about my bike. The California couple took this break in their part of the conversation as an opportunity to pack up their stuff and leave. Before they climbed into the cab, they told me they'd tried to drive over the hill, but the snow was too deep, so they turned around. I was surprised, as it seemed like only a skiff of snow covered the road, but I'd also been riding the very good trail that this heavy machine made for me. Apparently this EarthRoamer costs $1.5 million. Looks cozy. It's probably your best chance to survive the Zombie Apocalypse. But can it cover as much ground as a fat bike? No. No it cannot.

 Past the EarthRoamer track, the chatty local's snowmobile track went for another mile. This track was much less rideable, but I gave it my best effort. There was so little wind that it felt almost hot at this altitude, even though temperatures were in the 20s or lower. The air was crisp and dry, and I felt like I was back in Alaska, deep in the Interior, riding the Poorman Road to Ruby. So sublime.

Once I hit the descent, there was no track at all. All that remained was pristine snow, deeply piled in wind-driven waves. I'll admit, I wasn't expecting to have to walk three miles and 1,700 vertical feet downhill, nor was I expecting to continue to gasp for oxygen as I pulled my wheeled anchor and tired legs through thigh-deep drifts so late in my "short" ride. But this unanticipated effort didn't make me any less happy.

If anything, I was even more thrilled, and counted my blessings. When it's summer, this road is a river of babyheads. There is nowhere to look but down, while bouncing over a jackhammer of rocks and hanging on for dear life. When it's winter, walking at 2 mph, I finally noticed all of the stunning scenery. I glanced at my heart rate monitor. 151 bpm. When I was walking on the treadmill at 2 mph, my heart rate was 88. "When I mark this down on my spreadsheet, it's going to kill the pattern," I thought.

 Oh well. I need to get used to the reality that I may never find the answers I seek. The only concept I can easily grasp is that I'm happiest when I'm in motion. Even when I feel physically weak and bad, and even when an expected fast descent falls under some strange microclimate to be utterly buried in snow, I'm still happy. Is this another shot of endorphins? The rapture of high altitude? Maybe, just as some days are inexplicably bad, others are inexplicably exceptional. Just as some descents are effortless and flowing, others are deep and arduous. Maybe there's no logical reason for the difference. Maybe all the experimenting and questioning is meaningless. Maybe I should ... just ride. 
Monday, October 29, 2018

Thoughts on Unruly Bodies

Hiking above Heart Lake on Sunday. It's truly shoulder season here — warm, incredibly windy, and weird snow conditions

I know, I know, I said I wasn't going to write any more blog posts about slumps. This is only about that on the periphery. Also, I lied. 

Earlier this year, the wonderful author Roxane Gay compiled an online anthology called “Unruly Bodies.” In this series, 25 writers explored emotional, cultural and scientific connections with their bodies, with titles such as “The Body That Understands What Fullness Is” and “The Body That’s Too Asian and Too Sick for America.” Each essay offered new insight into the different ways individuals experience the world because of the bodies in which they reside.

A woman with a progressive neuromuscular disease, Kelly Davio, contributed “The Body That Can’t Run Marathons.” Kelly’s essay was about coping with chronic pain and disability. More broadly, it was about the fantasy of discipline.

 “I understand the temptation to look at the body as a thing that can be disciplined out of its unruly ways — something that, with the application of enough will or moral fortitude can be made to behave, to be quiet, to stop its complaining,” she wrote. “After all, I broke my own bones over the fantasy that I could will my body to be something that its very cells are incapable of becoming.”

Kelly didn’t even want to run marathons. She just wanted to run. Even after repeated warnings from her doctor about her porous bones, she stepped onto a treadmill. She jogged, just a little, to see how it felt. Then her ankle snapped.

“The body has its own rules," she concluded. "Its logic doesn’t hinge on America’s moral panic over pain, just as it doesn’t hinge on my daydreams about achieving transcendence on a treadmill.”

Wind and snow conditions on the Divide looked a little too iffy to risk ascending the headwall
I’ve been thinking about this anthology recently, because so much of it refutes athletic dogma: What the mind can conceive, the body can achieve. Goals are not deserved, goals are made. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Pain is weakness leaving the body. We’re all capable, as long as we put in the work.

I’m guilty of embracing such dogma. “If I can do it, anyone can,” is something I’ve said, because I’ve never been an natural athlete. But I also didn’t fully recognize my own socioeconomic and health privilege that allowed me to invest the necessary time and energy into pursuing my goals. “I can do anything,” is also something I nearly believed, before life rightly trampled all over my ego. Now I agree with Kelly. The body has its own rules, and its logic doesn't hinge on self-righteous platitudes.

It’s not that I no longer believe we should strive toward goals — life is all about striving. But there’s a certain tranquility in accepting inevitable limitations, and in doing so, better understanding our uniquely unruly selves.

I told Beat I wasn't feeling strong enough to endure the wind. We still went for an off-trail excursion to a nearby ridge.

I’m a little tired of my unruly self. All of these new little problems build on past little problems, like compounding interest. There’s a little bruise on my right shin. It’s been there for more than two months, since I fell into a boulder on my birthday. The leg still feels tender when I run downhill, but the pain is minor, not worth fussing about. Still ... two months. I fell because of my rickety left ankle. It causes instability on the most benign terrain, but I become especially clumsy on the chaotic slopes of the mountains I love. I injured this ankle badly when I was 19 — probably broke it. Never had it set. Beat thinks I should have this looked at. Maybe it's a problem that can still be corrected.

Surgery for a 20-year-old injury seems absurd, especially when I can still take my wobbly body wherever I please. Still, the bruises and scars continue to accumulate. I feel them when it’s cold, when the wind blows, when I’m teetering on some ledge. I startle and struggle to catch my breath.

Sometimes my breathing is just bad. It’s so bad that I can’t even boost my heart rate out of zone 2 before I’m winded. I start gasping when I walk up the stairs. I become dizzy and despondent. For three years, this what I’ve invested in — dozens of hours and thousands of health care dollars — to find a solution. I agreed to be injected with what feels like poison to me — allergen immunotherapy — on average once a week since October 2016. Another doctor treats me for thyroid disease, with a liver-damaging drug. Am I measurably less thyrotoxic and less allergic to things now? Yes. But sometimes my breathing is still bad.

Recently, the distant but familiar anxiety episodes of my early 20s re-emerged. Do I need a psychiatrist now? More drugs? Maybe I just need more time to heal, but I’m losing faith that any treatment will solve these issues. At this point I’m just waiting to be diagnosed with functional illness, which is another way for the medical profession to tell me they can’t help me. At least then, I’ll be that much closer to acceptance of my unruly body.

I enjoyed the scenic diversion, but I was annoyed by how weak I felt, and embarrassed that I was holding Beat back.

As much as I want to discipline my mind toward acceptance, wild hope will likely persist. I may venture down the rabbit hole of holistic medicine, which is similar to athletic dogma in that it offers unconvincingly simple solutions to complex problems. But there is wisdom buried within.

Traditional Chinese medicine embraces an intrinsic connection between emotions and organs. This tradition teaches that people hold grief in their lungs. What would I need to grieve? Nothing right now. The people I love are mostly healthy and happy. My life is good. I’m undeniably lucky. But as I process current events, studies about climate change, and the increasingly volatile state of nature, I think, “This is what I’m grieving. The world I love has been given a terminal diagnosis."

The whole world is a big thing to grieve, and bodies can only hold so much grief. So I close out of news sites and promise myself limited exposure to online commentary for at least a week. Hopefully I’ll start sleeping better, stop sweating at night, start breathing with my whole set of lungs. I do recognize that my body still enjoys a lot of privilege, especially when I read essays like Kelly’s. But that isn’t the point of the Unruly Bodies series. It wasn’t created to help the normals feel better about themselves. It’s there to illustrate that none of us are truly normal. It’s futile to try to fit ourselves and our uniquely unruly bodies into tidy molds.

I’m tempted to toss all of my striving to the wind and just run free, as free as I can, for as long as I’m able.