Thursday, July 30, 2015

But ... be brave

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 comments:

  1. I love your insight about having gotten a glimpse into what old age may be like. I've never experienced the depth of what you went through, but I think I understand the apathy brought on by exhaustion you describe. Kind of frightening, really.

    There's something about the tempo of that song, right? "Be brave!" Optimistic defiance in the face of futility. Issac Brock writes incredible lyrics, and that song reminds me of older, quirkier Modest Mouse songs.

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    1. The apathy I slipped into at times was frightening. I wouldn't call it depressed or suicidal, that's certainly not the right characterization. But there were certainly times were I wasn't sad or angry — actually I felt no emotion — but I'd think about dying and not care whether I lived or died. That experience has given me something to reflect about in the aftermath.

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  2. I found this interesting because I tried the healthy complex carbs on my last long distance hike and struggled. This time I went back to snickers and energy chews and it went much better. I suspect that at long and sustained effort sugar really does fuel some people. I tried to balance it out with a healthy dinner and a protein smoothie for breakfast.

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    1. The thing about simple sugars is they metabolize very quickly and offer an almost instant source of energy, and also don't demand much from your digestive system. I'm a big fan of using sugar for fuel and don't think it's evil in this regard (although it is addictive and bad for teeth.)

      I was trying to stick to more complex food sources on the Divide to aid in recovery. Sugar doesn't provide nutrition or anything the body needs to repair tissue. During sustained efforts I think my body has a tendency to metabolize muscle, and after three weeks I'm a withered shell unless I can take in adequate protein. But my digestive system is not robust and I struggle with fats and proteins. Even in my day-to-day life I can't process all that much fat without digestive distress. Add high efforts and a 5,000-6,000-calorie-a-day diet, and I pretty much have to turn to sugar. But I did try to eat "healthy" as much as I could during the Tour Divide. I'd call it a failed experiment.

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  3. Jill, how about an inhaler? Having asthma attacks is not really a smart thing to foster for days on end....it is not mind over matter....lots of athletes use them. Once you find yourself prone to them, you have to protect your lungs. You know they can cause fatalities, right?

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  4. By them, I mean being prone to asthma attacks...asthma attacks can cause fatalities....

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    1. I do carry and inhaler with me now, just about everywhere I go. I picked it up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, during the Tour Divide after a doctor diagnosed me with bronchitis and prescribed it to me. It's still too early to say whether I'm developing asthma, or whether these were isolated incidents related to my illness. My own doctor believes I developed a mild case of pneumonia. Pneumonia can cause asthma symptoms, although I've read several studies on it since, and there's not much that's conclusive about a direct link between pneumonia and asthma.

      My own hopefully theory? I caught a cold, which progressed to bronchitis, which worsened into pneumonia as I left it untreated for more than two weeks and taxed my body at higher-than-usual rates. It takes a while to get over that, but there is hope for 100 percent recovery. However, I'll probably continue to refill my albuterol inhaler prescription indefinitely.

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  5. Okay, the mom in me feels better! I found the best way to control my asthma was to control the allergies as best I could, usually with a daily allergy pill like Claritin....I was able to get out of the routine of allergies leading to asthma attack and then prolonged bronchitis...hope you can find a good approach that allows you to enjoy all the outdoor exercise!

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  6. Re: your previous post where you said you drenched yourself in DEET, I wondered if you have ever considered using a bug jacket as an alternative at least for the upper part of your body? I rarely use any kind of insect repellent and on a recent backpacking trip, where the mosquitoes were quite thick at times, I used a bug jacket with a built-in headnet. It's very lightweight and compact to pack and was cool to wear with the air passing through the netting.

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    1. Actually most the bites I got were on my butt, ankles, and legs ... I would have needed bug net pants. I'm sure they make those.

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  7. Jill that's a whole new level of TD suffering. Even not being sick I was wishing for a dust mask on this years race.

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