Monday, August 10, 2015

Getting my lungs back

After I left the Tour Divide, I spent the next week convalescing at my parents' house and feeling half dead. Temperatures in Salt Lake City were well into the 100s, and I could understand why weather services issue heat warnings for the elderly and infirmed. My body was so weak that I could barely cope with anything. I slept up to twelve hours a day, wheezed when I spoke, and became desperately winded while walking with my mother across a Target parking lot. An albuterol inhaler helped, but two different antibiotics didn't seem to do anything. After I returned to California, my doctor speculated I'd developed a viral pneumonia. My resting heart rate was still in the 90s, and he was alarmed that I'd damaged my heart. Several tests confirmed normal heart function, and enough time passed that concerns about pulmonary embolism also declined.

With its harsh symptoms and recovery, the "Tour Divide lung crud" is as sick as I've ever been. Admittedly I harbored jealousy about other Tour Dividers who bounced back from their respiratory illnesses as I struggled through a slow walk around the neighborhood, clutching an inhaler and frequently stopping to catch my breath on the day I'd hoped to finish the race. It's humbling to realize how quickly fitness can be reduced to zero, and this illness has been a reminder to never take health and vitality for granted. Physically moving through the world is my greatest source of joy, and it's also a gift that could be snatched away at any time, without warning.

I don't need to go into detail about how I spent the month of July, but it was a slow recovery that got a boost once I started running again. I wore a heart rate monitor and went for lethargic jogs. At first I couldn't breathe when my heart rate spiked to the high 130s. But before too long I didn't become winded until the 140s, and then the 150s. My usual tempo pace falls into the 160s, and I first achieved that about three weeks ago. Every run felt like an improvement to my lung health, while a couple of bike rides set me back. It was more difficult to control my exertion levels on the bike, and I had an asthma attack while mountain biking in Santa Cruz with my friend Jan. This prompted me to cancel a backpacking trip the following weekend, and I thought I would probably lose the rest of summer to the lung crud.

Still, I continued to make improvements with running, and boosted my mileage as I clung to hope for late summer adventures. I received an invitation to join friends on a five-day backpacking trip in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming. Concerns about the altitude and other commitments prompted me to say no, but at the last minute I decided to go. It was a wonderful trip that I'll post about soon, but felt especially encouraged by a couple of outings in Salt Lake City that I tacked on at the end. It was just five weeks ago that I couldn't walk along a flat sidewalk without gasping. By Aug. 8, I felt strong enough to attempt Lone Peak.

Lone Peak is my childhood mountain. I used to gaze up at its higher slopes while walking to school. Looming over the southeastern corner of the Salt Lake Valley, Lone Peak is a broad massif with a prominent point 7,000 feet above the valley floor. If you start from the valley, you have to climb all of those 7,000 feet, and the loose-dirt trail that gains 1,200 feet per mile is the easy part. At 9,000 feet elevation the trail effectively ends, and the next 2,500 vertical feet entail difficult route-finding up a boulder-choked cirque, scrambling up rocky gullies and traversing a tricky knife ridge. I've summited Lone six or seven times in my life, and I forget how hard it is, every time.

Although it was 90 degrees in the valley, the air at 11,000 feet had a sharp bite. Still, the sky was clear, and there was almost no wind. I hesitated for long minutes over the tricky maneuvers of the knife ridge, trying to work up the nerve to wedge my Hokas into a crack or swing my whole body over a yawning couloir while clinging to an overhanging slab. My heart continued to beat steadily, as though it understood that adrenaline spikes might trigger a breathing attack that would not help the situation. I was surprised how easy it was to breathe up here. For weeks my lungs felt as though they were clogged with silt. For lack of a real medical explanation, the silt analogy is the best I have. Tight airways forced shallow breathing, but slight increases in effort seemed to help break up the "blockage." Progress was so gradual I hardly noticed, but this day was the first my lungs felt almost clear. I scrambled onto the table-sized boulder that forms Lone Peak, steadied my legs to stand amid the dizzying drops on all four sides, took a deep breath, and smiled. Then I quickly dropped back to squatting position, because damn, this peak is exposed.

After nine hours of steep hiking and scrambling on Sunday — not to mention the five days in the Wind Rivers before that — my legs were sore and creaky on Monday morning. But my lungs felt great, which is basically the same as being well-rested. I still had eight hours to kill before I needed to be at the airport, so I joined my dad for a nice jaunt up Mount Raymond and Gobbler's Knob, two 10,200-foot peaks in the heart of the Wasatch.

Dad said Mount Raymond was a bit of a scramble. It was fun scrambling, of course, and not too exposed. But my hamstrings felt shredded from lots of over-stretching on Lone Peak, and my legs were covered in cuts and bruises from less-than-graceful maneuvers. Breathing, however, remained steady. I was thrilled. What a gift this is — the ability to move through the world.

I won't take this for granted again. 


  1. Welcome back. Glad to see you fit and healthy again. ;)

  2. health is so so important... it should be everyone's number one priority in life, for without health we are nothing... don't realize that until something happens.
    So very very important it is - health and wellbeing.

  3. So glad you are back to normal again!!!

  4. So glad to hear you've regained your health! Will look forward to reading about your Wind River trip as we want to plan a backpacking trip there next year.

  5. Hi Jill, hope you are recovering fast. Please, work on keeping the asthma symptoms in check - it typically requires a "maintenance" medication, in addition to the emergency inhaler. Just a small comment - you are referring to your symptoms as "lung" problem. You perhaps had pneumonia, but any constriction in airways is a problem of bronchi, actually the smooth muscles of bronchi, over which we have no control. lungs themselves have no muscle or pain receptors, so we never feel what's going on there. it is only logical that people refer to airway obstruction as lung problem, but it is not entirely accurate. Good health takes good care, especially these potentially chronic issues.

    1. I admit I wasn't aware of the separations between lungs and bronchi. Interesting! I'm still unsure about the real causes of my breathing issues, but agree that I need to remain proactive.

  6. Jill, great to see such a positive lead shot symbolising your mental recovery as much as the physical I suspect. It's been great to read your recap seeing your writing reflect your return to a positive place. Enjoy moving through the rest of the summer at a sustainable pace.


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