Sunday, July 14, 2019

Summertime rolls

 Well, the rough season is here. I write this as I listen to thunder rumble outside. My body is a constant annoyance — legs, butt and shoulders peppered with inflamed welts (mosquito bite allergy), sinuses clogged with pollen, lips blistered and bleeding, skin blotched with sunburn (I can't miss a even of small patch of SPF 50 for an hour. The lips are a lost cause. Even pure zinc oxide rubs off too quickly.) The window air conditioner is rumbling in the enclosed bedroom as indoor temperatures climb into the 80s. I'm hung over because I spent way too much time in the sun this week. I'm scanning the weather forecast for a hopeful outing to the high country later this week ... lots of scary thunderstorm risk to contend with. Yes, summer is a challenging season, where every outdoor adventure must necessarily be accompanied by discomfort. I grapple for motivation, and occasionally force myself into the fearsome barrage of UV radiation, lest I come down with a real case of summertime S.A.D.

I imagine this is how the majority of people feel about winter. I empathize, people.

As I wait out the latest thunderstorm to embark on a muggy Sunday afternoon run, my outdoor moving time this week is already up to 22 hours. I'm stoked about that. Before this week, my summer was fairly low-key. During our 10 days in Germany, I made brief attempts to reboot my running. There were the early days when temperatures were in the high 30s Celsius with humidity, and I'd return after five miles, as drenched as though I jumped in a lake. There was the moment, a quarter mile into a run on a flat path with no obstacles, when my bad leg just crumpled and I hit the deck. There was the set of 106 stairs outside the technical college where Beat embarked on hill-training repeats. He'd do 20 while I did 15, for less than a thousand feet of elevation gain that left me feeling as worked as though I'd climbed a big mountain. There was also lots of touristing, visiting historic sites such as an abbey built in 1258 and a 60-meter-high boat lift for barges on a canal, and of course Beat's father's 80th birthday festivities with tons of good food and a relaxing boat ride. There was a proper vacation surrounding my pathetic attempts at running, and it was nice.

By the time we returned to Colorado, I was feeling some training guilt. I've been doing a lot of soul-searching about upcoming ambitions (will write about this soon.) More immediately, I signed up for a single summer race that is not necessarily a small thing — a 210-mile self-supported mountain bike race called the Summer Bear in Steamboat Springs. Spending 15 days off the bike during what should be peak training weeks wasn't ideal, so on Wednesday I carved out most of a day to make up for that. The weather was friendly, with temperatures in the high 70s rather than 90s, although climbing above 9,000 feet means I still need full leg and arm sun sleeves. I rolled out on some of my favorite local gravel climbs, washboarded and dusty, before turning onto Peak to Peak Highway near Ward. I thought about targeting Estes Park, not yet realizing that it was still another 35 miles of steep rolling hills away.

I managed 25 of those miles to Meeker Park before I hit a line of construction traffic. With people milling around outside their cars, it looked to be a long wait. I veered off the road to a take a break by Chapel on the Rock (built in 1936 - not quite the history of an 800-year-old abbey, but beautiful nonetheless.) I'd been battling severe jet lag for the past hour, and actually dozed off for a few seconds, just deep enough that I snapped awake to feel severely disoriented. Fearing the sleep monster would continue to haunt me if I waited around for too long, I decided to turn back. The ride still ended up at 103 miles with 9,600 feet of climbing. It occurred to me that I haven't ridden a "century" in some time ... perhaps years, since road-riding was a more regular thing for me while living in California (lots of tough rides in the Colorado log, but none quite topping a hundred miles.) Anyway, beyond the jet lag, I felt strong on this ride, which was heartening.

On Friday I joined friends for an overnight bikepack outside Eagle, Colorado. Betsy and Erika are also training for the Summer Bear, and Betsy organized the trip after asking local professional endurance cyclist Jeff Kerkove to suggest a route for her. We all had the GPS track and little else in the way of knowledge about it, but at least Erika had paper maps for later assessments ("is this really the right way? Really?") It was only about 80 miles overall, and we were all a little blasé about prep, rolling out for a crack-of-2 p.m. start. We actually ran into Jeff as were gazing at a map and he was returning from a training ride. He took this group photo for us.

Eagle is part of the region where the Rocky Mountains meet the Colorado Plateau, a stunning landscape of redrock cliffs rising toward the snow-capped summits of the northern Sawatch Range. It has been high on my list of regions to explore ... let's face it, I haven't seen that much of Colorado. So I was excited for the opportunity. Even if it meant a tedious I-70 commute to squeeze this trip into a 36-hour window.

Photo by Betsy Williford
Crossing Nolan Creek to reach Old Fulford Trail. Just 10 miles into the trip, we were already wandering back and forth, wondering where we were even going. This is why my physical therapist told me to wear the knee brace for this ride.

The first of several steep double-track climbs. Erika and Betsy performed impressively on their loaded fat bikes.

We descended to Fulford Historic District, elevation 9,860 feet, population "odd." This is another of Colorado's many semi-ghost towns, named after a miner killed in an avalanche in 1891. Now apparently more of a recreational community, Fulford wouldn't be an easy place to access in the winter, but it's hard to beat the setting.

More vistas at a bridge over Brush Creek.

Hat Creek Road, still blocked with a gate due to snow cover, took us 2,000 feet higher to a pass at 11,100 feet. Steep, rutted and dusted with loose pebbles, this climb was demanding yet "spinnable." Colors became saturated as shadows grew long, and I was in my zone. Contentedness peculated in my blood as I stomped through snow drifts and grunted around precipitous hairpin curves, gazing at mountains almost incandescent in the evening light. This is my heaven, right up until it becomes my hell. The duplexity makes me appreciate this zone all the more. 

Beautiful vistas awaited us just below the pass, with long views into the Holy Cross Wilderness. I rode my brakes, trying to prolong these fleeting moments next to the sky.

Betsy was fairly gassed by the top of Hat Creek Road, where we'd already climbed nearly 6,000 feet in a mere 29 miles. There was only one more hour of daylight, and it was clear we needed to keep rolling.

We descended all the way back to Brush Creek Road, the fast track to our point of origin. If we simply stayed on this road from the start, the ride to Crooked Creek Pass would have been a whole lot easier. But then it wouldn't have been nearly so late, nor the light so gorgeous.

Avalanche Peak made a stunning appearance as we raced the fading light to the end of a spur on Jeff's GPS track. I figured there was no reason for him to send us down here unless the camping was awesome, and I was eager to ride to the end.

Crooked Creek Reservoir. This did seem a nice spot to camp, but possible private. Plus, the bugs were bad, and it was surrounded by cattle. We continued to descend into the valley, watching a herd of elk gallop through the gorge.

The route ended at an intersection that was crowded with campers — apparently this is a popular spot for climbing, and also this is just typical Colorado in July. The crowds were a disappointment, but it was apparent that my companions felt an urgency to nail down a camp site before it was fully dark. Had I been alone, I probably would have kept riding until I could find more solitude. As the sky faded to deeper shades of purple, we wheeled the bikes through a bumpy marsh until we found an unoccupied fire pit. The woods only held open spots big enough for Betsy's tent and Erika's bivy, so I plunked down on the dewy shoreline of Lime Creek. It was a beautiful setting, though, with the sound of cascading water to lull me to sleep.

Wider view of camp in the morning, from where I enjoyed my peanut butter oatmeal and coffee at the fire pit. Yeah, okay, it was a nice place to camp.

Mist rising off the creek in the morning. I awoke to a thick coat of frost across the fly of my tent, so I guessed it dropped a few degrees below freezing overnight. I slept cozy in my brand new Sea to Summit Spark sleeping bag, my first new "summer" bag in 12 years, after a number of years freezing in a worn-out Mountain Hardwear Phantom 32. Such luxury, to camp in the mountains in a lightweight sleeping bag and stay warm! Since I tend to do the majority of my camping in the fall and winter months, my summer system still baffles me. It weighs almost nothing — two-pound tent, one-pound sleeping bag, and a 12-ounce pad. I may curse my holey Thermarest NeoAir to the sky and back, but when it actually holds air, it's wonderful.

Heading out to climb the long road we'd descended the previous evening. We ended day one at around 40 miles, and expected the same mileage for day two, but we naively hoped for a little less climbing and maybe more easy rolling descents.

After the climb out of the Crooked Creek Valley, there was only supposed to be one 2,000-foot climb and a few small rollers. But the 2,000-foot ascent proved to a tease, with endless rises and drops around drainages as the powerline road skirted a broad ridge between Brush Creek and Gypsum Creek. The heat of the day was beginning to crank, there was little shade, and the UV force at 10,000 feet made me feel like I was hunched over the surface of the sun. I slathered on more sunscreen and drank gulps of still-cool creek water, but I felt cooked. Summer is hard.

Beneath the first stand of aspens I'd seen in a couple of miles, I met another trio of bikepacking ladies. What are the chances? I suppose this whole bike-camping thing is becoming fairly popular. I learned the women were from Leadville, and were also fully cooked by what they viewed as low-altitude heat away from their high mountain home (our altitude at the time of meeting was 10,200 feet.) We compared routes and it was funny to learn they were on a similar two-day trip, even though our plans came from different sources. Their route was all downhill from there, and we both assumed mine would be the same. We agreed to meet up at a brewery for lunch in a couple of hours.

Of course, I had no idea where our route actually went from here. None of us did. Betsy was enjoying the views but seemed to be struggling with the climbing. We accidentally bypassed a ridge trail to instead take the parallel jeep track called Hardscrabble Mountain Road, which earned its name with jolty babyhead rocks and endless, pointless ups-and-downs.

From there we spent some time lost and gazing confused at Erika's map, but we managed to reconnect with the route with a long climb to the also-aptly-named Fire Box. This was a nasty, chundery descent, a downhill hike-a-bike even for my more skilled friends with monster truck bikes. Betsy had enough of all of this, and voiced this opinion to us. I too was wondering about bailouts, but at this point I'd spent a fair amount of time scrolling through the screen on my GPS, and understood that we were locked in a gorge surrounding Abrams Creek and fairly committed to whatever Jeff had in mind. That proved to be more doubletrack climbing and a long singletrack traverse through the oak brush along dry hillsides as all three of us ran out of water and thunderstorms bared down from the high country.

In the race to beat the rain to town, Betsy suddenly broke out of her funk and outpaced Erika and me, as we struggled with woozy dehydration and dizzy vertigo along the steep side slopes (the vertigo was probably just me.) It was fun to watch her bust out a strong ride when just miles earlier she was vocally insistent that she was going to keel over. Endurance does this for everyone, at some point. It's heaven to hell and back again. That's what makes it so addicting. We ended this day at 42 miles and 5,500 feet of climbing spread across 8.5 tiresome hours, and promptly hit the local saloon for massive plates of food.

All in all, a great overnight with a little something for everyone. 8/10 would ride again, although I still have a whole lot of Colorado left to explore. 
Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Glance under the hood

Beat and I are in Berlin, Germany, for his dad’s 80th birthday. It’s been a whirlwind week with lots of family time and less outdoor activity, so it seems a good time to post about the DEXA Scan I had on June 28.

Several weeks ago, I received an offer for a free scan in exchange for writing about the experience on my blog. I receive dozens of freebie offers on an annual basis, and usually ignore them because this isn’t a gear blog, and although I don't care to limit the content here, reviews rarely seem worth the effort. But I am a sucker for data … and it seemed like this data could be useful for planning my strength training for upcoming winter ambitions. So I signed up.

DEXA is an acronym for dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry. In a nutshell, this scan uses low-energy X-ray beams to measure body mass — parsing out lean mass, body fat, and bone. Most often these scans are used to measure bone mineral density, often in older folks with higher risk for fractures and osteoporosis. In recent years, DEXA has become more popular among athletes as one of the most accurate ways to measure body fat and predict muscle mass. I had my scan done at an office in Denver called Body Fat USA. It’s quick and painless — you just lie down on a table for six minutes, and then a technician spends another 20 minutes going over the results. The explanations only scratch the surface of the data, so if you don’t do much research before (as I hadn’t), you may walk away a little confused. However, it’s nice to have the data in hand for subsequent research.

I looked forward to learning my bone mineral density, as I carry several risk factors for early-onset osteoporosis — white woman with hyperthyroidism. So I had some concerns, but the news was good. My number landed me in the 91st percentile for women my age. Perhaps this is the reason why I can take so many hard falls but have yet to break a bone, besides toes. Typically people aren’t scanned for bone density until they have a problem, and by then there’s no way of knowing how much they’ve deteriorated from normal. I think this will prove to be useful baseline data to have on record as I grow older.

The most controversial information from DEXA Scan is body fat. It’s controversial because while DEXA is considered the most accurate test there is, it still has an error rate around 5 percent. It also measures all body fat, including hidden sources such as intramusclar fat and brain tissue, so the numbers read higher than your typical caliper test. I wasn’t expecting a great result, but it did prove discouraging — 29 percent. Discouraging, but not surprising. For much of my adult life, my weight sat near 135 pounds. Then, like many people with Graves Disease, I packed on weight after I started on anti-thyroid medication. In the past two years, I’ve been as high as 150 pounds — during “slumps” when I’m feeling less well, I also seem to skew heavier — and am currently sitting at 145.0. (Official DEXA scan weight. The scan also put me at 67.5 inches, which is a half inch taller than I thought I was.)

There was always hope that the weight was more muscle I was able to build once my thyroid hormone levels normalized, but now it’s clear that I’m carrying at least 10 pounds of fat I don’t really need. It’s also clear that not hauling that fat around will boost my long-range endurance. So, I should probably try to lose that weight. Grumble, grumble. I have historically been not great at dieting or restrictive eating, so I’m going to go the old-fashioned slow route of adding protein while cutting sugar and tracking calories through the rest of the summer, and then assess. (After we return from Germany. There's just too many delicious foods here. Look at me, I'm already making excuses.)

For me, the most interesting and useful part of the DEXA Scan was lean mass balance, which parses out the amount of muscle in each limb. Through the scan I learned I am carrying a full 1.1 pounds more muscle in my left leg versus my right — a severe imbalance that can lead to injury. My right leg is the one I injured during the Bryce 100, which I’ve been working to rehab since. However, I’ve also ramped up my cycling mileage, which allowed me to heavily favor my left leg in order to generate the power necessary to climb hills. Still, I wonder if I developed this imbalance in the short span of the six weeks I’ve been injured, or whether this is a problem I’ve had much longer. Such an imbalance could have indirectly led to my current injury — adductor strain and MCL tear. Either way, I now know I have work to do. One-legged squats, ugh. And I’ll be able to take this info to my physical therapist next week, to gain more insight from her.

Overall, the information from the DEXA Scan will be useful in planning my training for the next few months, and I’m glad I had this opportunity. The data is interesting enough that I will probably pay the $100 for another scan in six or seven months, to see whether I’ve moved toward improvements I hope to make.

To learn more about DEXA Scans, visit
Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Summer snow

I took my first steps back toward hiking and running this week. It's never the triumphant return I visualize at the onset of injury. Fitness has faded. The wobble-leg remains. Every little tinge from my knee raises alarm, and my leg muscles still feel unreasonably tight and sore. I long for freedom in motion, and instead find weakness and uncertainty. 

Here I am on my first hike in five weeks. When I announced my plan to walk up Mount Sanitas, Beat protested loudly. I balked. "I don't think you realize all of the hard biking I've been doing for the past few weeks," I argued, reasoning that my knee has already handled a lot of strenuous movement without incident. Beat put on his stern face, so I reluctantly amended my plan to the Sanitas Valley. Turns out he was right. I wasn't ready for a mountain. Under weight-bearing motion, my right leg tired quickly, and felt like it might buckle. I dug in my trekking poles and concentrated on the position of my hips and shoulders in an effort to realign by balance. It was a rather boring slog, but the morning was gorgeous and the Boulder foothills are as green as I've ever seen them, especially for late June. By the end of this four-mile meander, I felt like I regained control. This gave me a surge of exhilarating confidence. 

Here I am on my second hike, three days later. Look how happy I am, drenched in sweat and surrounded by fresh snow! This was the Great Summer Solstice Storm, an abnormally cold system that dumped as much as two feet of snow at higher altitudes in northern Colorado. I watched it in the forecast for days, and told Beat of my plans to go to Niwot Ridge on Saturday so I could hike slowly in the snain and maybe, just maybe, taste some fresh snow above 11,000 feet. He thought I was being silly, and it was silly. He declined to join because the weather was supposed to be cold and wet, unpleasant for any season, and my slow hiking pace wasn't going to be much of a workout.

 I set out under gray skies and drizzling rain. The precipitation tapered off after a mile or so, and I started to see hints of sunbeams through the fog. It was reminiscent of mountains I used to climb when I lived in Juneau, breaking through the marine layer to a bright blue world that felt like mine, and mine alone. Sunshine is not in short supply where I live now, and indeed I purposefully drove to the mountains to enjoy a brief escape from summer. But I still felt the thrill of potential sunshine tugging at my heavy legs, and marched harder to break out of the weather before it closed in for the afternoon.

 Driven by the external motivators of mountains, snow and sunshine, I felt no tinges in my knee or wobbly uncertainty. And sure enough, as soon as I cleared tree line, blue skies opened up overhead. A layer of fresh snow covered a frozen crust, offering perfect traction and almost effortless walking across the tundra. Beat and I often train on Niwot Ridge in the winter, in part because the weather up here is reliably awful, and thus good practice for the worst Alaska can throw at us. Niwot can be a harsh taskmaster, but it was laying out the red carpet on this day, the first full day of summer.

This ridge is always wind-scoured. So I was surprised to see more snow covering the ground on June 22 than the last time I was here, in February.

Kiowa Peak, a beauty.  This is also one of the watershed peaks that is off-limits to public recreation. Every summer I vow to spend more time in these mountains, climb more peaks, boost myself out of my comfort zone more often ... and I fail at this ambition. This summer, with record high snowpack and subsequently volatile weather patterns, may prove to be another season that slips away. But I do have some "projects" on my mind. I can't believe it's almost July, already.

 I marched to a high point on the ridge, still running scared from those dark clouds boiling up from below, which I feared held electrical energy as afternoon approached. As much as I think thundersnow is a cool phenomenon, I'd rather not experience it up close and personal. I did take the time to shoot a few selfies of my amazing achievement, walking on rocks and tundra. On my own two legs! The novelty!

I also stopped to admire the hardy little tundra flowers, straining for the sunlight of their short growing season while surrounded by patches of fresh snow. 

 Then I descended into the boiling clouds. Snow flurries swirled around me as the landscape darkened and blurred.

 By tree line it was nasty again, with fog so thick that I fretted about finding my footprints so I wouldn't become hopelessly disoriented and wander down the wrong drainage. Losing 2,500 feet in altitude proved more tricky than gaining it, but the ascent to the glorious heavens was well worth the wet and wobbly descent back to Earth.

On Monday, I made time for a ride up Old Fall River Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. I missed this year's window to ride Trail Ridge Road without traffic, and this looked to be my last chance for Old Fall River before it opens in July. The weather forecast was promising, but then I woke to howling gusts of wind whistling through the trees and rattling the windows. In Estes Park there was a wind advisory, calling for gusts to 50 mph. At 7 a.m.! The volatile and unpredictable weather patterns continue. For the past few weeks I have not felt particularly strong, and hiking and jogging had ignited new pains. I nearly bailed, but reasoned that this likely was my only chance to ride RMNP this season.

From the park entrance to the Alpine Visitors Center is 13 miles, gaining 4,000 feet mainly in the nine miles on dirt — so it's reasonably and consistently steep. Add the persistent 20-30mph headwind and wet, wheel-sucking dirt ... well, it was an enormous battle for me. Enough so that I didn't question my motivations or anything else. All of my thoughts were a pinprick of light, just out of reach. Classic pain cave.

 As I neared the summit, slush replaced mud, and the wind diminished to a brisk but not quite fierce 10mph breeze. It was so strange ... how does the weather get better above 11,000 feet? It happened on Niwot. It happened here. It doesn't make much sense. But at least I started to have fun again, straining to power through the slush rather than simply survive each pedal stroke.

A few hundred feet from the top, the road had been cleared at one point, but had since filled with with about two feet of snow. Postholing fun! I wrecked an already poor showing on the Strava segment by covering the final three quarters of a mile at 1.2 mph.

 I admit I battled to the Alpine Visitors Center because I was not looking forward to the cold slush and mud bath that awaited me on the descent, and hoped to loop around on the paved road. But the visitors center was closed, as was Trail Ridge Road on both sides, as snow-removal equipment cut away at snow drifts deposited by Sunday's storm. The wind up here was again fierce, and the chill felt Arctic. Icicles that clung to the building weren't even dripping. Outhouse floors were covered in drifted snow. It felt like any typical winter day in a shuttered national park, on June 24.

A ranger was standing outside the building when I approached, and looked at me quizzically. The paved road was closed and blocked by working machinery and snowdrifts, and Old Fall River Road was considered impassable, so where, he wondered, did I come from? I explained the mile of postholing on the dirt road and admitted I hoped to escape on pavement, but was now aware of the road closure, so I'd go back the way I came. The ranger smiled and pointed up the road. "Around that corner there are still ten-foot drifts. If you think you can get around them, you can go."

Funny guy, that ranger. What he was suggesting was technically against the rules and probably somewhat dangerous, but he knew I wouldn't try it. My feet were already soaked and I was freezing in my little florescent roadie vest and sun-protective leggings. No way was I going to continue postholing at 12,000 feet for hours longer. Instead I settled for a brief pause to cross the road and enjoy the wintry view. One last snowy vista. I mean, summer has to come eventually, right? Temperatures in the high 80s darkened the forecast later in the week. But one can dream.
Postholing downhill is not much easier than going up. That snowy peak in the background is Ypsilon Mountain, which I've come to think of as my "birthday nemesis." It was the second of three 13ers I climbed on my birthday last August, and it nearly broke me after I slipped and fell in the loose boulder minefield on the north ridge. For a mountain enthusiast, I'm fairly bad at mountains. I'm nervous about exposure, I flounder on technical terrain, and I seem to become worse with experience. In some ways this injury feels like a bit of reset. I'm working on my stride, I'm more aware of my imbalances, and I'm focusing on the way I move. Will there be enough time left in this truncated summer to tackle some difficult problems? Should I make this a birthday goal? I climbed three 13ers for my 39th, so maybe four 14ers for my 40th? Truthfully I'd rather do something more fun and less harrowing for my birthday, but you only turn 40 once.

Summer gives me such anxiety. I'll be relieved with the peacefulness of winter returns.

Two intrepid cyclists, one with a fat bike, decided to push through the path I blazed. I followed another biker who opted to bail. We descended in a blast of slush and mud, stopping occasionally at hairpin turns to stomp some feeling back into our feet. He later texted me a nice photo that he took of me during the climb:

Yes, summer isn't all bad. But these snowy respites sure were nice.