Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Tour Divide downfall

Silverthorne, Colorado
In case you were wondering what I've been doing for the past ten days since I left the Tour Divide, the answer is sleeping. Mostly. My parents drove from Salt Lake City to Frisco, Colorado, to scoop me up after I waffled for two days about quitting. This delay was ridiculous, actually, given how much I declined in my final two days on the route, and how monumentally difficult even the most basic tasks had become. A doctor called in a prescription for me during my "zero" day in Silverthorne. I'd languished in bed all afternoon, consuming only complementary apple juice because I was too weak to walk to 7-Eleven, and too nauseated to eat solid foods anyway. The prescription was filled at a Walgreens that was a mile away, and I decided to walk there because I felt too weak to carry my bike down (and inevitably back up) the stairs of my hotel. I don't need to describe this walk in great detail, but I was a wreck — dizzy, wheezing audibly, needing to sit down every five minutes for a break. It was a mile. The chore took nearly two hours to complete. I was as sick as I've been in ten years. And still, I waited until later that evening to call my mom, to call my race done.

 The decline was startlingly quick and precise. I wheezed my way into Colorado still feeling reasonably able. I reached the Brush Mountain Lodge, which was one of my big sub-goals, and enjoyed two big meals and a full night's rest at this haven run by the Divide's most dedicated trail angel, Kristen. Despite this, I slept rather poorly with lots of wheezing and coughing. The next morning, I had an asthma attack about five miles into the day, halfway up the watershed divide. It was worse than the attack I had outside Pinedale, and for a few seconds I fully believed I would asphyxiate and that would be the end of me. When my breathing finally opened up, I was shaken. Even if I was emotionally overreacting to this respiratory distress, I couldn't deny that this attack wasn't caused by dust or late-day fatigue. It was a beautiful, calm morning, and I'd only pedaled five miles since I started the day. I rested for ten minutes and actually started pedaling back in the direction of Brush Mountain Lodge. But then I decided that I was close enough to Steamboat Springs to reach it safely, and there I could seek medical attention.

 Mike, a Tour Divider who happened to live in Steamboat Springs, gave me advice on clinics in town when he passed near the top of the pass. He took a long ice cream break at the Clark store, and I saw him again after the long descent. I was very shaken at this point, because I was having trouble breathing all the time, even descending, and couldn't quite catch my breath when I stopped. Mike looked concerned, and I told him I was "okay, just having a tough day. I just need to drink something." Inside, I grabbed sunscreen and fruit juice. "Calm down," the clerk said with a friendly grin as I panted at the register. "It's a long race. You have lots of time."

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."

 When I left Steamboat in the morning, I did feel better. I pedaled slowly out of town, around the dam, and up Lynx Pass. I stopped to talk with GDMBR tourists, told them about my bronchitis amid phlegmy coughs, and said I was on antibiotics now so "hopefully I get my lungs back."

"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."

It was the worst I've ever felt amid attempts at physical activity, and I include that time I came down with debilitating food poisoning in Nepal. It took me a couple more hours just to ride the eight mostly downhill miles into Kremmling. But hope springs eternal, doesn't it? Those who have read the book about my first Tour Divide might remember my hang-ups about quitting this race in Kremmling, Colorado. I hoped I'd just had a *really* bad day, and that the antibiotics would kick in. I checked into a motel, walked to the store to purchase a half dozen Odwalla smoothies — so I wouldn't need to consume solid food on my bike — and braced for the following day.

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.


  1. This too shall pass.
    Get better and you'll figure something out. There's more to adventure than feeling bad. It can actually be quite fun and rewarding. What a concept!

  2. I am sorry to hear you got sick this year and the extent of your suffering. I admire your determination in these epic events but I hope you have gained wisdom on when to scratch due to true sickness vs. the normal bucket of obstacles and challenges. I have some appreciation how the satisfaction and personal growth you gain from these challenges is proportionate to the suffering and determination it requires. But as soon as you realize that you are truly sick, that continuing on is dangerous and a setback to your recovery, then take care of yourself girl!
    Sorry for the sermon but I was inspired. I'm glad your folks were able to swoop in and assist and I hope you're feeling much better. Thanks for the posts.

  3. I think there are very few people on the planet who could have an experience like the one you had and succeed in finding profound meaning from it. It sounds like you're well on your way to doing that, and hopefully it won't be just a traumatic experience. Your mental toughness more than anything else inspires me.

    I have always had sensitive lungs, and get asthma during "code red" days if I'm out hiking for 4+ hours. My guess is that the unusually large number of fires this year have lowered the air quality and affected so many of the tour divide folks. I also notice a correlation between ozone level and the likelihood that I will have an attack (or just a day when I have that under-water feeling and my usual hikes take twice as long).

    You may or may not have asthma, but I would recommend looking at the ozone / pollution levels every time you go out and see if there's a correlation. And then, I hate to say this, because I never follow this advice: limit physical activity on the worst air quality days! :) good luck with that! ;)

  4. I really appreciate posts about when things don't go well/as planned. You've had so many incredible triumphs and experiences, but it's good to see the other side of that as well. You can't (or shouldn't) always push through, and I appreciate that you record that reality instead of brushing over it.

  5. Wow Jill...it's heartbreaking to hear your story...I was wondering what was up when you stopped making progress (before you finally scratched). Being as I don't really do Facebook, I wasn't up on things (I'll have to remedy that someday I guess). Glad your parents were close-enough to rescue you (there really isn't any distance that would be "too far" I bet)...and glad to hear you are on the road to recovering.

  6. Jill, you have been on many adventures in great health and have had great success. That is your "normal". Sometimes the human body simply does not cooperate and decides to get sick. I believe it's that simple. Maybe you pushed a bit to hard & far on the TD thus the recovery time will take just a bit longer. This WILL pass and you will be OKAY. I don't believe it's "something else" . . . it's just recovery. This "tunnel of blah" . . . it's temporary! Your strength WILL RETURN! Slowly, but it will return. You are an inspiration! Thanks for the update and sharing your story. STAY STRONG in all aspects of your life.

  7. Jill,
    I've followed you for several years, enjoying your adventures. You've taught me so much fantastic stuff! Thank you.

    Good health is a gift, please rest, relax, learn from it, enjoy it, the next adventure is out there waiting for you. Thanks again!

  8. Respiratory illness is no joke. Ignoring bronchitis (and not even biking then) resulted in asthma in my thirties and it took me 20 years to learn how to control it to be able to ride. Nothing like tour divide but ride through environmental exposure to allergens. It is possible but it does take long term treatments. Realize that in a hard day on bike we inhale much more allergens than an average person on average day. Your race was great effort but one cannot race sick. Recover fast!

  9. Sometimes the biggest act of bravery doesn't come from pushing through but from deciding when to call it quits. I hope you feel better soon.

    1. This is so true.
      Sending you some energy and a wish for rapid recovery. Until then, take it easy.

  10. on out. life goes on.

    on on!

  11. That's crazy, girl. Glad you're ok and got rescued!

  12. I am thankful that your parents could bail you out like that. You are very lucky to have them in your lives!! I hope that you're getting stronger. After reading about this and your earlier episodes of breathing issues, I wondered about asthma. I got it in my 30's, and being able to use an inhaler before my breathing is terrible makes all the difference for me. I hope that you find a solution too!

  13. So sorry to hear that you had to drop out. But I am really pleased that you chose to share with us what you went through, not only the physical toll but especially the emotional turmoil of making the decision to not carry on. Reading your works I not only enjoy vicariously your advenures, I also learn a lot about human nature and the desire to push one's limits. You're all kinds of awesome! I'm glad you wisely chose to drop and that your parents were there for you. Please write more about your experiences on this race. Thanks, Wayne C.

  14. Well done, both for being brave enough to last as long as you did, and for being brave enough to stop when you needed to.
    Feel better soon, we will all be rooting for you

  15. Read an article in the July 2015 issue of outside about overtraining - "Running on empty". It talked about ultra athletes who got "over training syndrome", many of whom never recovered. Your old flame was mentioned in this context. One sports medicine doctor mentioned that 85% of his patients who suffered OTS had trained or raced while sick. You were smart to drop out, maybe should have sooner?

  16. Darn it. That's a rough story. Why oh why does this race seem so interesting to me still? Is it seeing the riders as they roll through my home town? Is it my infatuation with testing myself both mentally and physically in this one life? Someone said to me this day that we are lucky to experience the average of seventy five trips around the sun. You did great on this one. I still don't think your done. Hope to see you strong again and having fun next time we pass this part of the sun.

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  17. That's some pretty dark humor finding the above add at the bottom of your blog. Must be related to all your keywords. I think this is more a knock on the TDR air quality this year due to a serious lack of rain. Take solace in knowing your not the only one.


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