Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Pre-empting the springtime slump

Ahead of our move to Colorado in two weeks, Beat and I have been making the rounds to say goodbye to friends in the Bay Area. One of the first questions they inevitably ask me is, "When's your next race?"

"Dunno," I reply. "I don't have anything planned right now."

I realized it's probably been nearly seven years since I finished one big event and didn't already have designs on another. (Only about a month passed after the 2009 Tour Divide before my friend Keith asked me to be the other half of his 2010 TransRockies team. So I'm not sure even that counts.) Sure, there will probably be another Iditarod. But that's a year away, and not set in stone. Summer is still wide open.

This was intentional, given my recent breathing issues. In just a couple of weeks I'll move from 300 feet to 7,100 feet elevation, where I'll face a host of new allergens to which I may already be susceptible (Recent history has shown me to be especially vulnerable to allergies in the Rocky Mountains.) Training through the transition could be downright terrible.

Although the Iditarod went well and I had no major issues during the month I was in Alaska, I'm still concerned about asthma. Allergy season is in full bloom here in California, and I can feel it when I'm running. Every time I venture outside, I turn into a snotty mess with sneezing and watery eyes. This is quite different than wheezing and constricted airways, but paranoia causes me to instantly dial back my effort the moment I feel remotely winded. I am still unwilling to approach that elusive red line. So I run more slowly and walk up the steeper hills. It's still enjoyable, and it's not like I'm training for anything.

I do wonder when — or if — I'll feel that fire again. That fire that burns in my throat when I've reached the edge of my abilities. That fire to charge up a hill without fear that the air will run out before I reach the top. To take on a summertime challenge with heat and dust and pollen, and not feel resigned to weakness and failure from the start. Today I first learned about and finally watched the short video about Lael Wilcox, "Fast Forward." The part that struck me most was the sound clip of Lael's labored breathing before she decides to call it during her Arizona Trail time trial. The sound ... the look on her face ... the emotions in her eyes. I had to hit pause and look away for a moment. It hit too close to home.

I've not spoken with Lael about her experiences with exercise-related breathing problems. (Sadly, we just missed crossing paths in Alaska last month.) I empathize with her because I suspect we caught the same germ in Banff, both developed lung issues during the Tour Divide, and experienced recurrences afterward. She is younger and fitter than I am, and can do some amazing things while wheezing, but I relate all the same. I know she's training for the Trans-Am, and am excited to watch her progress in the race. Secretly, selfishly, I tell myself that if Lael can get through the Trans-Am without issue, perhaps I'm in the clear as well.

The asthma doctor I am seeing has speculated that my symptoms have been caused by reactive airways following my bout with pneumonia last June and July. Given the depth of the infection, she said it could take months to recover, but she believed I would recover. She does not think I have chronic asthma, but I may be more susceptible to allergy-related asthma attacks, bronchitis, and asthmatic symptoms in the future ... because some of the choices I made as an endurance athlete shredded my lungs (okay, she didn't actually voice this last part.) She put me on a maintenance inhaler because I was heading into the middle of nowhere frozen Alaska with uncertain symptoms. I'm of the opinion the medication helped, but I suspect she won't renew it when I go in for my final appointment. I'm healthy right now. The Iditarod went well. Springtime allergies have not stopped me from running ... yet. I suppose it's all good news.

 On the injury front, I still have carpal tunnel syndrome. It still hurts to hold a toothbrush, so biking remains unappealing on top of inadvisable. I am still not getting the sympathy from friends that I would like ("It's been six weeks! I'm in pain. I have to type with one finger. I pulled a muscle in my shoulder because I'm trying to lift heavy things with one arm. Please stop e-mailing fun bike invites and giving me FOMO on top of CTS.") I miss biking. Running has been fun, though. The second and third photos are from a jaunt I did at Windy Hill during the week. On Saturday, Beat and I ran up Rhus Ridge in the rain.

 Ah, Black Mountain. The round little hilltop with radio towers, odd rock formations, and an incredible panoramic view of everything I love about the Bay Area — from San Francisco to Mount Hamilton to the redwood-forested hills to the Pacific Ocean. On a rainy Sunday, the views were of not much. I think I will need to return here once more, to say a proper goodbye to my special place before I go. It's not the easiest spot to reach on foot.

On Monday I drove to Santa Clara to donate bike parts and my beloved commuter fixie. It was a sad parting, as the fixie was the last vestige of my life before California. Living 2,000+ feet above a town where I would actually do any commuting means I have no desire to ride a fixed-gear in Colorado, so I decided she should go to someone who can actually use her. My knees are happy, but my heart is sad.

I consoled myself with a run around a park I'd never visited, Saint Joseph's Hill in Los Gatos. The lupine were out. I started down the hill at a brisk gallop, taking deep gulps of the pollinated air and trying to ignore the rash forming beneath my wrist brace. My heart was happy, but then my shins were sad. Time for a rest day.


  1. Jill, you say you've "shredded" your lungs doing endurance events. This may sound naive, but what kind of damage can you do to your lungs by just using them?

    1. Pneumonia can cause lung damage, and people who have had respiratory illness tend to be more susceptible to it in the future. Since October I've had three pulmonary function tests that all showed improvements. I was at 89 percent in October, which is a reasonable number but quite low for someone who participates in endurance sports. I was at 97 in February, so I am improving. The doctor said she normally sees numbers well over 100 in endurance athletes. The way I interpret this is that I'm currently operating with normal person fitness, when last summer I had the equivalent of heavy smoker fitness.

      Competing in events while ill is what I believe potentially damaged my lungs. Once you have productive coughing there is already a lot of inflammation, and colds turn to bronchitis turn to pneumonia. I know of a number of similar cases in friends and others, who had this one time they pushed themselves too hard while they were sick, and now have ongoing respiratory issues. Exercise-induced asthma is common in endurance athletes. It's difficult to pinpoint any direct cause (of course we need to factor in genetics, pollution levels at home, other lifestyle conditions.) But the common thread I've seen in others is combining endurance efforts with a respiratory illness.

      The Tour Divide wasn't my only bout with illness while racing — but it was, I believe, the tipping point. All of my evidence is circumstantial, but I remain convinced. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would have quit on the second day, in Eureka, Montana. (I guess if I could go back and do it all over again, I would have made a bunch of different choices.) But again, I continue to blame my decision to continue in the Tour Divide for exacerbating my condition so badly, and haven't had anyone convince me otherwise yet.

  2. I see. Thanks. I do remember from my racing days, finishing a hard race and having a feeling of shortness of breath for a few days but nothing lasting. Glad the numbers are going in the right direction and especially glad the lungs held up throughout the ITI.

    1. I've had that as well — shortness of breath for a day or two after a race, most likely caused by dehydration.

  3. Watch out for the junipers in CO...they will be shedding a huge amount of pollen....as you probably well know. I could not tolerate them, myself. Hope you feel better and find a path through these issues and ailments. Time really helps with carpal tunnel but many do turn to surgery. It is hard to operate with one good hand...and tough on your good hand. Hope you can be wise and patient and let the healing work....know that will be hard!

  4. I know . . . injury, pain and health issues suck! (sorry to be blunt) BUT . . . your lungs are recovering since the Tour Divide and you DID the ITI! Yes, more recovery needs to happen since the ITI and it will happen! Keep the faith. Keep on dreaming, keep on moving and enjoy this next awesome chapter in your book. "Life above 7,000 feet"

  5. I predict all will be just fine. And I especially predict that your opportunities in and around Boulder will allow you to very quickly forget CA.

  6. It's hard to know how the allergens will be for you near Boulder. I developed allergies and asthma for the first time in my life during pine pollen season here (in our 3rd year or so). But, many people tolerate it just fine. In any case, I bet that you're going to love it here. And it was a good idea to get rid of the fixie!

    BTW, as for the snow here, the snowfall amount can vary hugely depending on elevation. The forecasters keep changing their minds about the snow level. I'm at about 8200' so I will definitely have snow. However, it might be rain below 7000', putting your new place right close to the line. We locals rely on a forecaster on FB. His page is called "Weather Talk" (https://www.facebook.com/GregsWeatherTalk/?fref=ts). It's very specific and much better than National weather forecasters like Weatherunderground.

  7. Loved reading about Alaska....keep up the adventures...btw, they don't have to be a million miles to tweek our reading interest. Thanks


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