Friday, September 26, 2014

Flailing and awkward, still

From two years ago, doing things I maybe shouldn't be doing in the mountains. 

My name is Jill, and I’m an endorphinaholic. It’s been fifteen days since my last run.

 I figured I wouldn’t have much to post on my outdoors blog for a while, but I do like to record a post-mortem about race attempts, especially unsuccessful ones. The dreaded “what went wrong.” What went wrong? I fell down in an embarrassingly ungraceful way and hurt my knee. Why? Likely a number of factors — first, there’s the obvious fatigue; then lack of specific training on technical terrain; another likely candidate would be poorly developed core strength; yet another possibility might be a real and potentially unworkable problem with balance.

 It’s that last possibility that makes me feel uneasy. A friend was recently diagnosed with Ménière's disease. He and I have clung to the same exposed rock outcroppings and shared the similar rushes of vertigo at inopportune times. I’m not saying I suspect I have Ménière's or any other balance disorder. It only led me to realize that such issues can crop up well into adulthood, and that maybe it’s possible to make one’s way through life without incident until you’re somewhere on a high mountain ridge in the dark, in the rain, suddenly feeling slightly dizzy with blurred vision and not fully understanding why. It’s easy to blame these bouts of disorientation on the overdoing of things, fatigue, nutrition, bad luck … but maybe, just maybe, there’s more to it.

 This evening, Beat and I were sitting in the sauna and dreaming big about the Great Himalayan Trail. I let my imagination run wild across high plateaus and 6,000-meter passes. And then I thought, “I can’t even handle the Alps. The nice hiking trails in the Alps. The Himalaya, Jill. Really?

 In the midst of this latest trauma-based injury recovery — the disappointment about scratching from the race, the longing to go rushing up into the mountains while I was limping around Courmayeur, the withdrawals from happy exercise hormones and daily shots of fresh air, the acceptance and efforts to do productive things with my extra time — there’s be one dominant emotion: Trepidation. Trepidation that maybe this whole clumsy thing isn’t “Ha ha, I’m new to running, I get lazy with my feet, I daydream” — the maybe it’s something I can’t just easily get over. That maybe being injured because I fell, ungracefully, is going to continue to be a regular thing. That maybe “running” — as in pushing my physical limits in the way I most enjoy — on mountain terrain is simply something that I just can’t do, without higher-than-average risk at least.

 So what could I do? Embrace this as an added incentive to work on un-fun things like core strength and balance exercises? Train for something with single-minded focus, and figure out for sure? Risk that dizziness and blurred vision in a truly dangerous place? Give in, slow down, give up on the really rugged stuff? Figure this is just the endorphin withdrawals talking and do nothing differently the next time I want to go for a tough, long hike? All possibilities.

I should do something differently, though. I'm not exactly proud of my accumulating scars. And I had one rather scary tumble on an exposed section of trail when I was just day-hiking — not racing — in France, the felt like another wake-up call. But what to do?


  1. I would rather carry on painting than sitting at home looking at an empty canvass wondering how it would have looked if I carried on painting. Sometimes velvet red shades makes a canvass beautiful.

    Life is not without scars, and scars normally tells a very interesting story.....

    1. I don't think I'm an ape on a mountain bike, but in 2012 during the Freedom Challenge I felt on an iced up path, broke three ribs and painted my canvass beautifully with bright red scars. 2012 Freedom Challenge was my best enjoyed and remembered challenge.

      Never stop with what you're enjoying !!!

  2. Everything sucks, sometimes. With that said, do your best and forget the rest. Remove the competition aspect, remove the "extreme" aspect, from all of this and for God's sake just enjoy it?
    Even if you go out an win every single race you enter, you're playing an un winnable game.

  3. I do this in my competitive fishing all the time. Don't dwell on it to long or emotions will run your thought process, not you. Keep up the good fight, competitive or not your stories have gotten me back on my bike and now my kids are even starting to get active.

  4. Since vision plays a big role in balance, maybe the best starting point is to sort out your vision issues and see if that improves your balance problems?

    Or, if the uncertainty is still bothering you in a few weeks, you could decide to skip the Himalayan Trail for a year and spend the money that you would have spent on that on getting tested for absolutely anything and everything that could be a medical cause of balance problems? Then you'll know for certain one way or the other and you can plan accordingly--you'll either know that it's worthwhile to focus on balance exercises or that you might be better off staying away from that type of terrain

    (better yet, spend some of the money on a plane ticket to India, get the tests done in India, and then head off to the Himalayan Trail at minimal extra cost!)

  5. I am not sure there's any problem here. The section was extremely slippery and difficult - I lost a whopping 4 hours on the cutoff myself. The fall was unfortunate. But many people do fall, and get lucky. I provide some opposing facts that debunk your theory:
    - You timed out on PTL, not due to injury, on a much more difficult course
    - You've done fine on various ultra-long bike races
    - You've completed countless 50ks now, and some 100s w/o problems.
    - We actually BOTH suck at alpine terrain. I am very slow on talus. A bit faster, but still people pass me left and right. The reason is - we can't train for this easily - yet.
    - You have improved tremendously since you started running. You just started doing extremely difficult stuff right away, while I waited 6+ years before I did my first alpine race.

    Yes I am better at not falling, and catching my slipping than you. I've had like 10 times more practice than you as well. But I wouldn't say you're any worse than most runners who are risk-averse out there.

    If I used your criteria, by comparing myself to Daniel B for example, I would come to the conclusion I am handicapped in the mountains ...

    Relax, be easy on yourself, have fun, and be a little patient.

  6. Go back to biking. I think it is really where your heart lies. Forget this hiking stuff. You can always hike your bike if you get to the truly rugged stuff you aren't comfortable with. In the mean time at least do long adventures with your bike. Think about it, it's where your best and so far only books have come from. That is the passion you should return to.

  7. I don't think you have anything inherently wrong with you. You may be more klutzy than some people but you aren't any worse than most people. I don't think you need to see doctors or have a bunch of tests done. You can hike in the mountains and you wouldn't be able to do that if you truly had balance issues. You can work on balance by doing specific exercises which will help. Also try practicing in more difficult terrain under non race, non fatigue, non sleep deprived conditions. We are all worse when we are tired and it is dark. So don't give up. I think that not being able to exercise is causing you anxiety which is causing more self doubt. It is a proven fact that regular aerobic exercise helps as much as Prozac with depression and anxiety. Take this time and work on your upper body strength if you can't use your knee yet. You will be fine. Listen to Beat. He knows what he is talking about!

  8. Over the past two years i have developed a vestibular problem after a lifetime of exceptional balance. If i had been diagnosed correctly when it first started it might have only been a temporary issue but now seems to be permanent and as my diagnoses gets narrower it looks like i have either meneirs or something called "autoimmune inner ear disease."

    If you have a true medical issue you should notice the problem during all activities. My issues have made me turn around, as you fear, at critical points in an otherwise fantastic hike. During biking i often feel like i'm being pulled to the left, and it can make me seriously oversteer when making hairpin left turns. At home it can make me knock into a wall when i turn a corner. It's extremely frustrating and it can affect my vision when it's at its worst. There are medications though that help a lot, very quickly. I don't like to do them but now i'll bring some along hiking with me incase i have an episode.

    On the other hand, bad things can just happen in the mountains during bad weather. I was once traversing a very steep grassy slope in the Talkeetnas during a rain storm and i was being very careful about every step. Despite my best efforts, at on point the whole patch of ground i was standing on (along with a slab of rock underneath it) just slid off the side of the mountain, taking me with it. I was left literally hanging off a cliff, saved by an independently acting arm that did a lot of damage to itself in finding a good handhold without me ever seeing what it was doing.

  9. Beat makes a lot of sense. Also, I reluctantly took up yoga a couple of years ago to help with balance and flexibility - was sure I would hate it but loved it, and it has made a world of difference. Best wishes to you, whatever you decide.

  10. I haven't read back very far but I can probably take a pretty good educated guess about what brought this about :P Having done a few trips with you, I don't think you are more clumsy than average. I think the problems are really very simple to address, or at least try to address, and go from there:

    I think you wear inappropriate footwear which contributes to instability and lack of traction on rough terrain, and you don't eat when you're hungry, rest when you're tired, or put on clothes when you are cold. I really think it is as simple as that. Hunger, fatigue, and inadequate equipment really do contribute to a staggering number of accidents in the outdoors. Maybe try to address these three basic things on a consistent basis and see how things go - after you heal up of course.

  11. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Marnitz — your comments always make me smile. You do get it. Thanks for that.

    Adam: That's an unsettling development, and I'm sure a frustrating diagnosis. But you make a good point — sometimes things do just go wrong.

    I haven't collected enough evidence to justify seeking a bunch of tests for vision or balance issues. I do have the occasional, seemingly unprovoked dizzy spell (example: while walking down an aisle at Trader Joe's) I do occasionally walk directly into something I'm looking right at and intend to go around (slammed my right knee into a street light in Palo Alto a few months back, very embarrassing.) When I saw an optometrist about my strange vision issues last year, he speculated there were small tears in the extraocular muscles as a result of too-intense focus. Maybe that's bogus but he prescribed glasses that worked for a while, and then slowly my vision corrected itself. Now I only experience bouts of blurriness when I am sleep deprived or stressed. And I do very occasionally experience vertigo — that spinning feeling — but again, it's generally connected to fear, fatigue, or stress.

    I am giving more real consideration to taking up yoga. The main reason I haven't tried, besides an ever-deepening aversion to indoor exercise, is because I'm genuinely worried I will topple over during the poses. But — it's good for building core strength and I could use some direction in this regard.

    In terms of appropriate footwear for such terrain, Peter wrote a long analysis on his blog: I think even shoe manufacturers wouldn't disagree that technique matters a whole lot more than gear. When Beat was racing in Vietnam several years ago, they were up to their knees in slippery mud and could barely stay on their feet, and locals just breezed past them in homemade sandals.

    Overall, I do have concerns about my sense of balance and general ability to "drive" my own body, but I also believe I'm most likely simply on the below-average spectrum of normal.

    Then again, there's something to be said about the illogical label of "accident-prone." Beat and I went to the sauna again tonight, a half hour at 180 degrees, and afterward I stood up too fast. Rested some on the walk back to the apartment, but after climbing the stairs I became extremely dizzy. Beat said we should take the elevator, and I blacked out while waiting for it. If Beat hadn't been there to catch me, I probably would have knocked my head. As it was, I scratched his arm and landed hard on my ass. I remember none of this. When I came to I was on the floor with Beat holding my legs in the air. My butt is bruised but luckily no head injuries, or re-twisting of the bum knee.

    I feel like a disaster waiting to happen.

    1. Dude, that link was WAY too long to even think about trying to read that, but I will tell you that I think that kind of thinking is way off base. There is a HUGE difference in how one can handle terrain given differences in footwear. I'm gobsmacked anyone would try to argue otherwise; it just makes me wonder what people are smoking. Sure, being used to something makes a difference but there is a reason we don't ice climb in flip flops or surf in stilettos or go to Denali in Nike Air sneakers...

      Footwear even factors into a bunch of rescues I can easily recall from the past few years. With proper footwear, those folks wouldn't have had a problem or needed us or a helicopter. We've had to carry in footwear for people to facilitate rescuing them, because their own inappropriate gear had stranded them. Give them the right stuff, and they can walk out.

      Re: Vietnam and what have you; you have to understand that in SE Asia people are barefoot or in sandals every single day of their entire lives and that's not really a "technique" per se. Pretty much any environment has to be learned, so of course the locals kick everyone's ass at everything local; that's the nature of the beast.

      My broader point is that if you don't try different things, you're going to have the same problems over and over eh? Getting sturdier shoes and a warmer jacket seems a more logical first step than concluding that you are just clumsy, broken, or otherwise defective. Lots of people pass out when they get in the sauna, it's totally normal. Lots of people (actually, everyone) struggle when they overexert themselves and don't eat enough food or get enough rest. Drink more water when you get in the sauna. Take logical steps to prevent this stuff and disaster will not happen. Well, it might, but it's a lot less likely to.

    2. I know I can't win the "Hokas aren't death traps" argument with you, but those things are what probably 75 percent of participants in the TDG wear (this is Europe, after all.) Clearly 75 percent aren't being helicoptered out because they were immobilized by inappropriate footwear. I wore a sturdy pair of leather hiking boots on Mount Baker and took a decent tumble there (slipped on wet vegetation, slid down about six feet.) I also got a couple of blisters in 18 miles and cringe at the thought of what they would look like now after 120 in those shoes. Anyway, I realize this argument is going to reach its inevitable conclusion of "you shouldn't be doing this stuff," and that's fine. But why not just say that outright, rather than give unrelated tips (warmer jacket? huh?) on an activity you do not agree with?

  12. Sounds like somebody needs to go for a bike ride

  13. Honestly, I think you're being hard on yourself. You're doing really, really extreme things--which is great--and you have the skills to back it up. On the mountain goat scale, okay, maybe you're not queen of the technical and maybe the people you do things with are, but that doesn't mean you should bag it and go run paved bike paths. I think when we do the "extreme" and weather factors in, the "did not achieve primary objective" percentage goes up. that's part of the deal. Yoga, balance training, core training are all great and fabulous and can help, for sure. If you have the time and desire to do them, DO! but otherwise... enjoy! maybe the time pressure is the biggest problem right now. I bet without the time pressure of the cut-off, you'd have completed the route. But maybe you like the time pressure... so... be gentle with yourself. Do the himalayas. train hard. prepare yourself as best you can. give it a go. weather happens to everyone. falls happen to everyone. we can't all be kilian or emelie or even beat, but we can be the best versions of ourselves. Go get it, Jill!
    --Kristin in CO

  14. I agree with Kristin. I think you may not realize hown extreme the things you do really are. As for the sauna, dehydration can do that to anyone.

  15. It is an incredible performance to beat the cut-off of a single day of TDG. Only a few thousand people in the world can do that. If you had a serious balance or vision problem, I can't imagine you could perform as you did. I agree Beat's post makes a lot of sense.

    It is a miracle anyway to safely place some 100.000 footsteps in often difficult terrain and conditions, considering a serious lack of sleep, regeneration and nutrition.

    If you don't care about the leaderboard, it might be an option to switch the strategy and stay very close to the cutoff to take extra time to sleep. Of course this increases the risk to fold if e.g. weather gets very bad, but it probably reduces the risk of injuries.

  16. Perhaps there is a different approach that may help. I tried to teach my dad how to ride a motorcycle 4-5 times using both a dirt bike and a street bike. Each lesson ended with him crashing on various surfaces - dirt field, ditch, asphalt. He was a large man at 6' and 230lbs. However, except for his pride, he didn't get injured during the crashes. His explanation for this good fortune was the "tuck and roll" training he received at the army paratrooper school. My suggestion for you is to accept that you are going to fall, and then get some training that will help minimize injuries resulting from falling such as tumbling, gymnastics, martial arts, etc.
    - RK

    1. That's really good advice as well. Learning how to fall is really helpful. Nobody learns stuff well by teaching themselves. Take some lessons!

    2. Falling lessons? I can't get over the image of trying a tuck and roll at falling momentum on a 45-degree mountain slope. Might as well just chuck myself over a cliff and save those painful twenty seconds of somersaulting.

  17. Could your dizziness and blurred vision have more to do with your seeming inability to keep down nutrition while operating in extreme physical situations? I have read your books and your blog for a long time and I am amazed at what you do in relation to what you are able to eat and drink. It may be a larger contributing factor than you are allowing, even given that everyone is so different under those conditions.

  18. Can you borrow or rent a hand cycle, like the para-cyclists use on the Fairbanks to Anchorage race? That would get you out with lots of upper body and aerobic work.

    Are you using the same Hokas as most of the others who have fewer problems? The sole can make a huge difference. For years I wore one popular brand of snow packs and liked them except I tended to slip on ice. When they wore out I changed to another popular brand--wow, what a difference, even though the base material looked similar between the two.

    When I badly sprained my ankle, my PT had me use a balance board--a platform you stand on with a large half-sphere underneath--to do circles and squats to not only help flexibility and strength, but also muscle memory and balance. After several years I still do them a couple of times a week for maintenance. I know serious cross-country skiers do various squats and side thrusts to work on muscle memory. I bet a good PT could suggest several for you that would only take a few minutes a few times a week for maintenance.

    Dizziness--If I recall, you have allergies. I sometimes get dizziness or nausea, but it's due to some high sinus type congestion. I can sometimes sense it, but it isn't the stuffy nose/post-nasal drip kind. I get those, too, but am not dizzy when I do. Almost always if I take a Sudafed I'm fine 20 minutes later. Probably not your problem, but might be worth trying some Sudafed or Benydryl a time or two.

    There's something to be said for knowing how to fall, but more on snow than rocks!

    Get well soon. I think you've actually got a pretty good track record of few serious injuries for all you do.


    1. The Hokas we use are quite adequate and fairly grippy in the current iteration. About 50% of the runners in the alps use them or less grippy hoka models. The rest use anything from road shoes to apparently even less suitable footwear. Back when hokas had zero grip however I saw plenty of alpine runners blast by me without any issues. Nowadays they're on par with most trail runners that people use in such races. Very few people use very tractiony shoes like Innov8s which tend to be pretty hard on your feet.
      Bottom line for such descents is if you have good technique, confidence and good ankle strength your footwear matters less. The best sole can slip on a slick, mossy, mud-covered rock. Most rocks in the alps remain grippy when wet, but there are those random 10% ... If you manage your momentum well, you can get past such spots without even noticing.
      The flipside is that with firmer shoes a lot of other problems can arise over this distance, and I can speak from experience on that. Some people can do it w/o problem, but there's no denying the cushioning helps at least my joints.
      I think with a bit more practice Jill would be much more confident (I think she's doing quite fine already), and I agree she's not doing nearly as badly as she thinks.
      This section is difficult in dry conditions, and has had repeated evacuations due to injuries from falls. It was really quite tricky in wet conditions.
      The balance board is a good idea - we have one, will put it to use.

  19. If your reluctance to try yoga is based solely on a fear of toppling over during poses, then I strongly suggest you try it anyway. If you find a true yoga teacher, they will show you that there is no way you can "fail" at yoga. Even the most experienced yogi falls occasionally while doing the most routine pose. What sets the good yoga student apart is the ability to keep trying. The benefits you will receive are enormous. Check out this video of a disabled veteran who changed his life through yoga and NEVER giving up, even when he falls.
    One note: if you do go to a yoga class, be sure to tell your teacher about your knee right off the bat, and make sure that you do not do any poses that cause pain or discomfort in the knee, until you are sure it is strong and flexible enough to tolerate the movement.

  20. Hi Jill, I also want to chime in in favor of giving yoga and core training a shot.

    For yoga don't be shy about looking around for the right teacher and the right class. I had to try quite a few before I found the right one. If I were you I would look for a foundations, beginner, gentle or introductory class. The one I found is a foundations class and we don't do any balancing or strengthening poses - instead the focus is on alignment and stretching. My teacher recommended taking a class like this for a year or so before integrating balance and strength work in. They're the same root stretches as in a more advanced class just distilled into their simplest and easiest form.

    I also do a simple 10-15min/day core routine 2-4 times a week. I do basically 1 min of plan, 30 sec each side plank, 50 bicycles, 10 leg lower things, 5 boat ups and some down-dog pose. It's a really tiny amount of time and I have gotten much much stronger.

    Between the yoga and the core work my running has really improved. I especially notice it when I am running downhill. I am able to tighten my core as I go down and it makes me more stable and I am able to keep up with my friends. Good luck!!!

  21. I'm so impressed you tackle these races on top of everyday adventures, and put so muh of yourself out here for open critique?! I don't know what it means for you, but I think it helps us all a little bit :)

  22. It takes a lot of patience and many years. I think training your brain is probably more important than even any kind of core training or balance exercises. I have some pretty bad inner-ear issues due to a couple of very bad infections as a kid, but I consider myself very good at technical terrain. When I'm out of shape or not well trained, I am still good at it, albeit slower. It almost seems like I'm not really the one "in control" but somehow my feet just know where to land. I give myself a lot of positive talk every time I execute an especially graceful series of steps. Give yourself credit for all the thousands of steps you've taken without slipping. I am nowhere near as athletically trained as you are, and I never do core exercises. I just climb technical terrain several times per week, and have been doing so for years. Give yourself more time, and move somewhere with more terrifyingly steep mountains!

  23. I agree with the bike comments. I've been reading your blog for a long time - back to your first Iditarod trail ride - and you never seem so joyfully happy as when you write about your winter biking adventures. Also, thanks for all the beautiful writing and gorgeous photos over the years.


Feedback is always appreciated!