Tour Divide downfall
In Steamboat, I took my bike into Orange Peel bicycle shop and asked the mechanics for replacement chain, cassette, chainrings, and brake pads — everything I thought I'd need to get to Antelope Wells. Then I made an appointment at a medical clinic. They couldn't see me until 5:30, so I spent several hours sitting on various street benches on the main strip of Steamboat Springs, feeling more and more anxious.
The doctor listened to my lungs, conducted several breathing tests, listened to me cough, and told me I had bronchitis. He seemed confident in this diagnosis, and also in the prescription of antibiotics and an albuterol inhaler. "In a few days you should feel fine again," he said. "But if you don't, go see another doctor."
"You're going to need them," one said.
After Lynx Pass, the route is rippled with short but steep climbs and descents into the Colorado River Valley. The afternoon was unseasonably hot, and my thermometer read 31C at 9,000 feet. At first I felt uncomfortably overheated, and then dizzy. My arms felt like they were boiling, and when I looked down, I noticed dozens of tiny, white blisters bubbling up from the skin on my forearms. I've had this before — heat blisters — usually as an extreme reaction to sunlight. I slathered myself in more sunscreen and pulled my sleeves down, but still my arms and legs felt like I was holding them in an oven. I filtered more water from a stream and took long swigs. Nothing seemed to work. It was hot, but it wasn't unreasonably hot. It didn't seem likely I was developing heat stroke at 90 degrees, when I'd spent the past two weeks outside all day every day, and was well-acclimated to the heat.
Looking back, it could have been the antibiotics I was on. They warn you to "avoid excessive sun exposure on this medication." But when the boiling sensation abated and I started to feel chilled, I became alarmed. Either this was real heat stroke, or I had a fever.
The rest of the afternoon is something of a fog. I decided what I needed was breaks in the shade. These breaks became more frequent. Sometimes I'd battle my way from shade patch to shade patch, feeling dizzy on the sun-exposed sections of dirt road in between. Whenever I had breathing difficulties, I used my inhaler, but the respiratory distress seemed like a secondary concern at this point. As the route climbed Gore Canyon, the road was cut into a steep, rocky slope, and pullouts were the only places I could rest. Direct sunlight made me so dizzy and weak that I almost couldn't stand up. I remember almost dozing off only to hear that voice in my head scolding, "If you don't get up now, you are literally going to fry." About a hundred yards later, I found a nice patch of shade and decided to lay down for a longer period of time. I sent out a message from my Delorme declaring my intentions. I'm trying not to be melodramatic about this, but at the time it seemed prudent to do so, just in case I was found unconscious. I wasn't sure if this dizzy, feverish feeling would subside enough to ride into Kremmling. I remember, before falling asleep for about ten minutes, watching dozens of mosquitoes hover over me. "The mosquitoes are biting me and I don't even care," I thought miserably. "I don't even care."
I don't need to describe the ride from Kremmling to Silverthorne in great detail. It was a lot like the day before — starting out okay but rapidly declining into a slow-motion stumble from shade patch to shade patch. I felt the need to take more hits from my inhaler than was recommended, and decided to resist this urge on the chance the inhaler was causing my feverish decline. I was basically grasping at any rationale at this point, as I spiraled downward into a great pit of malaise.
After cresting Ute Pass — and looking back, I'm amazed I made it — I stopped to gaze over a green valley crowned with stunning snow-capped peaks, and felt nothing. "This is Colorado," I thought, "and it's so beautiful, and I don't even care. I don't even care." I realized then that I wasn't doing anything brave or meaningful. I was joylessly dragging my unwilling body over the Divide, and it didn't mean anything.
I came to the Tour Divide to search for strength, and what I found was weakness. Powerful weakness. Astonishing weakness. Humbling weakness. Several days later, when it was 106 degrees in Salt Lake City and I could scarcely drag myself through my parents' house, I wondered if this was what it felt like to be very old, and very frail, and visibly witness the life force draining from my body. My health *has* improved substantially since then. But not as substantially as I would have hoped. I still become short of breath during physical exertion. I still feel like I'm staring down a tunnel of blah. Is it because I didn't quit the Tour Divide soon enough, because I took it too far? Or something else entirely?
I don't know exactly what went wrong. Bronchitis that developed into mild pneumonia seems a likely candidate. Because I experienced other respiratory problems during endurance efforts this year (high altitude wheezing during the Fat Pursuit 200K snow bike race in January, and "kennel cough" during my Alaska bike tour in March), I worry I may be developing asthma (my father developed chronic asthma when he was in his 30s.) Further medical attention might help me narrow down the cause, but at this point it seems doubtful it will speed recovery. Quite a few people had respiratory distress on the Tour Divide this year, and at least four scratched with bronchitis or pneumonia. It's difficult to find enough connection between us to pin these maladies on a specific virus or bacteria. It could have been a perfect storm of high pollen, high winds, dust, and heat, that our bodies reacted to poorly. Or something else entirely.
Lots of great things happened during my Tour Divide, and I feel like I should be writing about those. But right now, this illness is my take-away, my lesson. What have I learned from it, besides the incredible power of weakness? It's something to mull further between naps, for now.
I'm grateful to my parents for rescuing me from Frisco when I wasn't functioning well. They spent fourteen hours driving to Colorado and back just so I could spend the night in my own (childhood) bedroom while my mother doted on me. I actually rode my bike from Silverthorne to Frisco, which is about eight miles along a paved bike path, on Sunday morning. I had to push my bike up each and every tiny incline, but I was feeling okay after all the sleep and thought I wasn't doing so badly. Then a little girl on a pink bike with training wheels passed me, and I just smiled. "When it's over, it's over."
I have a friend in Frisco, Daniel, who lives right on the GDMBR. I'd avoided going over there because entering his house meant my race was truly over. Instead, I spent those awful two days languishing alone in a hotel room in Silverthorne, just to keep the sad dream alive. I can't even describe the sense of relief I felt when I stepped into Daniel's home. It was as wonderful as finishing the race ... almost.