36

While looking for a photo for this post, I realized I hadn't taken any photos of my outdoor excursions (all runs) in a couple of weeks, and I haven't posted a California picture on my blog since May. How far my blog has fallen from its original intent (a day-to-day journal and cycling log.) This photo is from July, taken during one of Beat's favorite running routes — a 16-mile grinder in Portolla Redwoods State Park to visit a 1,200-year-old redwood called "Old Tree." Seems an apt image for a birthday post.

My running over past few weeks has been a series of steady and deliberate efforts to get my "wind" back, through whatever biological mechanisms aid in this process. What it's felt like is a slow strengthening, from the early days of July with tight constrictions in my bronchi and a weak heart (resting at 90 bpm but too taxed at 130 bpm) to clearer breathing and a strong heart. (I did seek out medical tests during this process. Lung X-Rays were clear, and heart checked out fine. Peak expiratory flow was well below normal — which could be a sign of chronic asthma, although my doctor was dismissive of this, and I haven't been inclined to seek out further tests for asthma as my breathing continues to improve.)

My resting heart rate dropped back down to 60 bpm, I'm back to running comfortably at 160 bpm, but I still don't have the oomph for high intensity. I still feel breathing constrictions when I venture into zone 4. I haven't attempted a max effort. The jury's out about whether running is aiding in the recovery process, but it felt like it has — my chest really does feel more "open" after runs. I think at worst it had a neutral effect. I only had one asthma attack since the Tour Divide, during a mountain bike ride in mid-July.

The runs have been really enjoyable, although summer is just not my season. I do not get excited about venturing outdoors when temperatures are in the 90s or higher, and come up with plenty of excuses for rest days (so believe me, I mostly ran when it felt great and I was enjoying myself. There was no forced running on my agenda.)

Last weekend saw record highs and an atmosphere choked with smoke from wildfires in Northern California. Beat wanted to squeeze in one last long run before we head to Europe this weekend, but even our go-to "cool" escapes — Big Basin and Santa Cruz — registered a temperature of 101 degrees. Somehow, while avoiding going outside all day on Saturday, we decided to embark on on a night run in Henry Coe State Park. These inland hills are typically the hottest zone in the Bay Area — temperatures in the 90s in November are not out of the question. So why, oh why, oh why? Well, it's also the only trail system nearby where it's legal to be out after dark. Bah, California.

Thank goodness temperatures were only in the high 80s as we launched up the steep, dusty hill at 9 p.m. Fist-sized tarantulas skittered across the trail — over the course of the run, we counted at least 25 — and we also shared the night with a curious fox, mice, deer, and other creepy unidentified glowing eyes. The 89,000-acre state park is just remote enough to catch only slivers of city light from the highest ridges, and moonlight cast the grassy hillsides in silver and indigo hues. Coe is a former ranch, and occasionally we'd pass a creepy abandoned building or piles of twisted and rusting metal. It had a thrilling "haunted old Coe" factor that kept me invigorated even as I shed buckets of sweat over relentlessly steep, loose terrain for three and a half hours. We returned to the car well after midnight, absolutely saturated in sweat.

Ten years, and still seeking the frosty sides of life.
This week was my 36th birthday. As I just released "Becoming Frozen" — a memoir about the year I was 26 years old — I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about what's changed in 10 years. My recent bout with respiratory illness — which at times made me feel 106 — also led to reflection on the fragility of health and the physical deterioration of age. But I realized that there are several ways in which I'm stronger at 36 than I was at 26.

1. My knees are better than they were at 26. Of course I don't know the precise condition of the tissues in my joints, but I do know my knees feel a lot better than they did for most of my 20s. During a cross-country bicycle tour in 2003, I developed patellar pain in my right knee that persisted for years. I remember several of my friends were training for marathons in 2004, and I lamented that I could never aspire to be a runner, because I had "bad knees." The pain was manageable but more prevalent when I started endurance cycling in 2005. During the 2007 Susitna 100, I twisted my knee painfully near the start of the race and still finished, which put the nail in a massive overuse injury that was diagnosed as grade 3 chondromalacia. My doctor in Juneau, who was an Ironman triathlete and sympathetic to the whole endurance cause, said I'd probably battle osteoarthritis for the rest of my life. A physical therapist said my vastus medialis quad muscles were extremely underdeveloped (weird for a cyclist, right?) and suggested running to build muscle strength and bone density to support the joint. I started hiking more frequently that year, but the pain really started to subside after 2010 ... when I took up running.

2. I really do have an iron butt these days, evidenced by making it through 1,700 miles of the Tour Divide in 14 days with no chamois and my same old Terry Butterfly saddle, and no issues.

3. My feet are so much tougher than they used to be. Thank you, running.

4. My co-workers in Idaho Falls gave me the flattering nickname "Gimpy McStiff" because I'd always come back from weekend adventures completely hobbled. Actually training on a regular basis — even for recreational activities — really helps reduce the Monday rigor mortis.

5. My endurance continues to improve. My struggles in recent years have been linked mainly to injuries — specifically blunt force injuries, caused by falls — and illnesses. When everything goes right, even in an extremely taxing effort like sled-dragging 350 miles of the Iditarod Trail in seven days — I'm able to bounce back to normal quickly, in a matter of days.

6. I've got a better handle on my sleep, although I still have occasional bouts of insomnia. My sleep patterns were terrible through my early 20s, and became more consistent when I developed a regular outdoor exercise habit.

7. Anxiety is largely gone from my life. I still feel anxious when it's justified — such as clinging to precipitous mountain ledges. But I used to struggle with a more pathological anxiety, and occasional bouts of panic when such a response was not even remotely justified. I was actually a fairly fearful person in my early 20s, and I've never been particularly good at reacting to stressors. Newspaper journalism was a rewarding occupation, but it wasn't always great for my psychological health. And before I became (you guessed it) a regular exerciser, I had no coping mechanisms. This aspect of my personality is a large reason why I started and continue to participate in adventure sports — I extract immense satisfaction and ultimately peace in confronting my fears. Regular outdoor activity has been part of my lifestyle for long enough that I can't even fathom feeling the same disconnected anxiety, but I always wonder whether it would return if I were to lose my ability to stay active.

So there you go. Getting older rocks. Bring on 36.

Comments

  1. 36 is pretty young. I think getting older kind of sucks. But I am a lot older than you. Happy Birthday. Can't wait to read the book.

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  2. Happy Birthday Jill! Every age is sweet but 36 is a particularly good age! Well done on getting stronger - especially for eliminating anxiety. In addition to this list, you've been rocking on some other life goals these past few years. These are the salad days.

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  3. Thanks for this. I am turning 36 this weekend, perfect timing. Happy Birthday!!!

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  4. 30's are great for endurance sports. You have had a chance for your endurance to build up over the past 10 years. Enjoy the rest of your 30's. Can I use you as a poster child for my patients for why exercise helps so many medical problems. They don't want to believe me when I tell them exercise will help their sleep, anxiety, joint pains, besides their diabetes, obesity, blood pressure, etc. Loved the book, by the way. If other readers love Jill's other books, you will love this one, too! Go buy it NOW!

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  5. Happy Birthday Jill. If only I had discovered the benefits and joys of regular exercise at your age. Better late than never I guess.
    Dave
    P.S. You don't look any different either!

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  6. Happy birthday! My sister-in-law pointed me to your blog, and I've enjoyed reading it ever since. I'm 47 and in the best shape of my life—not that I aspire to anything as challenging as the Tour Divide. But I'm looking forward to riding 90 miles tomorrow on the dirt roads of western Massachusetts (D2R2) and having a blast while doing so, something that I couldn't have imagined doing in my teens or 30s. (My 20s are a different story—grad school gave me so much time for exercise, not that I realized it at the time. But I frittered it away when I got my first professional job and failed to make time to keep exercising regularly.)

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  7. HB Jill! We'll look forward to seeing the next side-by-side photos in 10 more years. Adventure and engagement with your body and the outdoors keeps you young for which you now have evidence.

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  8. Tonya Simpson10:17 AM

    Happy birthday, Jill! Last year at 44 I had my best and strongest running and cycling year ever, so you will have many more to come. Oh, and everyone, buy the book--it's very entertaining!

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  9. Hey Jill. I've enjoyed reading your blog since I listened to an NPR story about your preparation for the ITI back in 2008, maybe? I really enjoy the reflective nature of your blog, particularly in posts like this where you examine how you've changed. I just bought Becoming Frozen, and I'm anxious to dig in. Happy Birthday! I hope that 36 is a great year for you.

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  10. jill you are the shit. just sayin.
    love,
    katie

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  11. Happy belated birthday! Just wanted to let you know I Loved Becoming Frozen. I followed your blog years ago when you were in Homer, and instantly was attracted to Alaska through your posts. I was finally able to make it up to Homer last summer and loved everything about it! And since I was just up there, it only enhanced your descriptive journey I couldn't put down. Hope all is well with you. Jimmy

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  12. Anonymous8:09 PM

    Loved the book Becoming Frozen! Followed your blog years ago when you were in Homer, and instantly was attracted to Alaska through your posts. I finally made it up to Homer last summer, and coincidentally stayed in a cabin just down from where y'all lived. Since I was just up there, it only enhanced your descriptive journey I couldn't put down. It was a great read, and I hope all is well with you! Jimmy

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  13. I have read your post. Sounds like it was beautiful out there. Reminds me of the one winter camping trip I did (Camel's Hump about 10 yrs ago) - the same feeling of "What in the world are we doing here?!" combined with "Thank God we're here!" The snow-covered woods always seems to me to be nature at its holiest.

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  14. Happy Birthday, Jill.
    I just followed you the Last ten years. It was very interesting and your pictures are great.
    All the best for the next 10 years from Tirol/Austria.

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  15. Anonymous7:48 PM

    I don't know if this would be helpful but I developed a strange coughing(it felt like bronchitis) and lowered energy while in Mexico a few years back and went to the doctor there ,after two days where I thought I was dying and she prescribed something for amoebas and within 24 hours my energy came back and I felt much better.You have ingested questionable water and food at times soooo.I'm enjoying reading your books . Thank you

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