Tuesday, July 21, 2015

I guess I'll ride this winter out

For reasons unknown, it was more difficult for me to sleep indoors than outdoors. After my coughing fits, I tended to toss and turn rather than passing back out, as I had in the bivy sack. It was the air, I suppose — drier and warmer — along with the stimulation of city lights and sounds. Around 2 a.m. I scrolled through Facebook for a half hour, and learned that the woman leading the Tour Divide, Lael Wilcox, sought medical attention for respiratory distress and was diagnosed with bronchitis. She received treatment in Helena and continued down the trail that evening, about four hours before I arrived.

Lael and I spent two nights in the same house in Banff, so it wasn't implausible to speculate that we'd caught the same bug. Her symptoms sounded similar to mine — night coughing, congestion that got worse through the day, tight breathing and wheezing. But they also sounded much more severe. I wasn't having asthma attacks, and my tight breathing didn't force me to stop. I've had bronchitis once before, while I was living in Idaho Falls in 2005. During that bout, my symptoms were so severe that I nearly called 911, because I couldn't pull myself up from the floor without blacking out, and I had to lay on the floor because it was the only way I could breathe at all. There was no way a person could ride a bike a hundred miles a day with that kind of illness, unless they were super-human like Lael. No, my Divide crud was uncomfortable, but it wasn't bronchitis.

In the morning, I added Benadryl to my daily dose of caffeine and Claritin — another antihistamine that I'd been taking as a preventative measure since day one. As I rifled through my drug baggie for the pink pills, I realized I hadn't taken a single painkiller on the Divide. So far, I was riding pain-free. Knees, toes, butt, shoulders — all of the issues that I expected hadn't cropped up once. My bike hadn't had so much as a flat tire. But the worst allergies I've yet experienced? I never expected that.

At least the indoor stay seemed to have the effect I hoped, and my lungs felt clear when I wheeled my bike into the warm morning air. For arriving in town reasonably early, I left my room late — after 6 a.m. I felt guilty about that, so I made only a quick stop at a convenience store and devoured two bananas and a green smoothie for breakfast. But I did get a coffee, and pedaled away from Helena feeling like an indestructible super hero.

The first 1,500-foot climb was a breeze, and I started up Lava Mountain with an abundance of energy. I attacked the root-clogged doubletrack with zeal, clearing steep pitches that I normally wouldn't have attempted with an unloaded bike on a day ride. Topping out at 7,500 feet, my lungs were still clear and I could breathe the fire I hadn't felt since the first day. Helena may have forced me to endure the wrath of the Gordon Lightfoot fan and a crappy night of sleep, but in exchange she had cured me! Hallelujah!

After descending into Basin, the route turned straight into a fierce headwind along the Boulder River. I felt the familiar squeeze of my airways beginning to constrict, again, and pulled a buff around my mouth to temper the barrage of dust and allergens. The old GDMBR used to skirt along frontage roads of I-15 before joining the freeway for a screaming descent into Butte, but it's since been re-routed to continue following the Boulder River to Lowland Creek. The gravel road gradually ascends (into fierce wind) seemingly forever to a Continental Divide crossing where the CDT also cuts through, then continues through steep, rolling hills until you're convinced the climbing will never end, and then you're in Butte. What happened to the screaming descent? How do you keep climbing for thirty miles and somehow end at the same elevation where you started? Mysteries. It's also twelve miles longer than the old route, and for me it was at least three hours slower. I expected to arrive at 2 p.m., and it was well after 5 by the time I rolled into town.

Afternoon thunderstorms rumbled overhead, and I raced past the brick buildings and run-down shops of downtown Butte. The route made a wide arc around the outskirts of the city — a scenic tour of open pit mines and other industrial areas. The maps indicated I'd have to ride at least a mile off route to find services, and it wasn't wrong — somehow the GDMBR managed to wrap around city of 30,000 without passing a single viable business beyond downtown. Finally there was a gas station, and I stopped for a large resupply while mulling how excited I felt about a dinner of beef jerky and cheese eaten on the bike. I'd been promising myself Subway since Basin, but the sensory overload of streets, traffic and people left me anxious to flee the city.

Eleanor walked in as I was filling a basket with all of the store's remaining string cheese, along with my new favorite power fuel that propelled me up Lava Mountain — cinnamon bears. She asked if I was aiming for Wise River that night. "Oh no," I replied. "Not with Fleecer Ridge in the way. No, it's far." I scanned her expression for hints of whether she planned to take on Fleecer that night. I wanted to warn her the approach is faint and difficult to locate in the dark, the descent drops off the face of the Earth, and the area has a reputation as a haven for mountain lions. But I felt I shouldn't try to influence the decisions of a competitor. As it was, it seemed she may have stopped into the store specifically to ask about my plans, because when I turned around again, she'd already left.

Evening was always my favorite time to ride, and this evening was the best one yet, with cool temperatures, open hillsides and incredible views of the Highland Mountains. Steeper climbs did ignite shallow breathing, leading to dizziness and muscle failures that forced me off the bike. Congestion was deepening as well, but I could formulate a reason for that — I hadn't taken allergy meds since Helena. Still, I couldn't deny that even though the morning had started out so well, each passing hour added increments of struggle, until twilight brought the dizzy, dull-headed, fatigued symptoms of oxygen starvation. As darkness settled I slipped into a daze, still pedaling forward but oblivious to everything else.

I was aiming for the Beaver Dam Campground, just 116 miles from Helena, but it was about as close as I was willing to get to the mountain lions on Fleecer. When I caught glimpse of the campground sign, consciousness came flooding back in a tsunami of fatigue. It was a strange sensation, as I don't recall feeling terrible on my bike. But as soon as I stopped, I felt utterly shattered. The audible wheezing had returned, and I looked up at the stars as I gulped air through the narrow straw of my lungs.

After taking a Benadryl, I settled into my bivy feeling inexplicably depressed. In hindsight, this was perhaps another symptom of low oxygen levels. My mental energy was just fumes, and I wondered if I should try to eat something, but I'd already slung my food bag over a branch.

"Tomorrow," I mumbled, and then found myself humming, "the sun will come out, tomorrow," and then I was asleep. 


  1. good on you for achieving all that... not many would nor could...

  2. "I was aiming for the Beaver Dam Campground, just 116 miles from Helena".

    You make that sound so trivial...oh, hey....no big deal...it was "just 116 miles from Helena" (on a HEAVILY LOADED MTB!). Seriously Jill...I go out and do 40 to 50 miles on my MTB and I'm WASTED! That you and all the rest of the racers log SO MANY MILES each day simply blows my mind! This race is like doing the LTR (Leadville Trail Race) EVERY SINGLE DAY (or worse, depending on how many MORE miles you do each day).

    I lived in Helena for 8 years (we moved there when I was 10) and Mt biking hadn't yet been invented...but I've been on SOME of the roads you traveled on my dirt bike (back in the Park Lake area between Helena and Boulder/Basin). Your pics bring me back to those days...it's beautiful out there. It's pretty crazy to think that you and other racers were having issues with the air (allergies/dust/what not).

    This race just floors me with it's challenge. Keep the story coming, Loving it!


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