Altitude crash

Just when I'd started to believe I might slip through this acclimatization period without detection, the altitude monster got its jaws around me. This happened near the summit of Bear Peak on Wednesday evening, halfway through the crux of the climb. The crux segment gains 620 feet in 0.3 miles, and I decided to go at this wall as hard as I possibly could, because damn it, if I can't ride bikes this summer, then I'm going to train myself into real mountain running shape once and for all. (I'm still hopeful I'll be able to ride bikes sooner than later. I'm going to see a hand specialist on Tuesday, and I'm expecting the doctor to recommend carpal tunnel surgery. This could require six to eight weeks of recovery, which would mean canceling hopeful plans to go bike touring with my friend Leah before her wedding in Oregon in June, which brings me sadness because CTS is such a stupid injury, but it's so persistent that I can't yet hold two trekking poles without pain, and single-poling makes me an even worse mountain "runner," so I vowed to improve on something I can at least partially control.)

So there I was, "running" up a slush-covered boulder staircase with the peak in sight, when I suddenly became very dizzy and nauseated. I don't often push myself through intense efforts, so I brushed off this episode and finished up the run more slowly, but I continued to feel out of sorts for the rest of the evening.

It was easy to blame unpacking, which in itself is a surprisingly strenuous effort, especially when it involves balancing weighty boxes up and down stairs with one bad hand. Beat and I were up late on Wednesday exploding stuff all over the house, and I decided I should lay off the mountain running on Thursday. But that was before Beat burst into the house just after 9 a.m., about two hours after he left for his run commute to work. He dropped his phone somewhere on the trail, and ran all the way home while looking for it. It remained missing, but he needed to get to work, so would I mind heading out to continue the search?

Thursday was a gorgeous morning, warm and bright, so of course I didn't mind an excuse to skip out on unpleasant chores and frolic in the mountains. Beat used the phone's GPS locator to figure out where it fell — just a few hundred yards from the point where he realized it was missing and turned around, which was nearly in town along the popular Mesa Trail. I thought I should hustle as best as I could manage since someone was likely to pick it up before I got there, so I threw on my pack and hurried out the door. Luckily, the person who did find it first was a good Samaritan and dropped it off at the ranger station, making for an easy retrieval (it also meant that Beat could have picked it up. But, you know — any excuse to climb a mountain!)

Since it snowed on Sunday, I didn't bank on the 80 degrees it was going to be by the time I circled back to climb Green, nor did I anticipate just how long the round-trip run was going to take (3.5 hours, because my downhill technical/rock running also remains poor so I move slowly and carefully.) Somewhere along the crux of the mountain — which is really all crux because it gains 2,400 feet in 1.9 miles — I again became dizzy and nauseated. Sweat was streaming down my face and I took long gulps from my water bladder, only to suck the thing dry. Oh, of course I ran out of water.

So there I was, sinking into the bonkiest of bonks, kneeling in a pile of wet pine needles a hundred feet off the trail and stuffing handfuls of snow into my mouth. The temperature suddenly felt like it was a 110 degrees; thank goodness there was still relatively fresh snow on the ground. Only eating snow made my face and good hand go quickly numb, and I already had a headache, plus a little bit of spinning vision/vertigo to go along with the dizziness.

This was physically the worst I've felt during any outdoor effort in a long time, and I can probably include the Iditarod in that assessment. Altitude is insidious like that. It doesn't steal my breath and leave me gasping the way illness and asthma do, aware of my compromised state — instead, it just slowly sucks life-giving oxygen from my blood, until my vitality has just drained away and I don't fully understand why. Am I suddenly horribly out of shape because I haven't ridden a bike in two months? Am I getting sick? Is this my lazy subconscious trying to masquerade as weakness? Either way, it was all I could do to dizzily stagger down the mountain and jog home.

As I walked toward the door, my legs buckled. They actually buckled. It brought to mind images of people who cross the finish line of a marathon and immediately collapse. I was completely spent. By a 12-mile run that was basically a hike! This was just embarrassing.

I intended to never speak of the phone run again, but I felt a need to explain (to myself more than anybody) why I've been so exhausted for the past two days. I took Friday and Saturday off from running. I continued to unpack, but at a much slower pace, with sit-down breaks. I fell asleep while writing, twice, in the middle of the day — and I am not a napper. My friend Danni was in town for one day and had exactly one free hour between 8 and 9 a.m. Saturday morning. I intended to drive down to town to see her and set my alarm, then slept through it. I actually managed to turn off an alarm in my sleep, the way I sometimes do during long endurance races. This brought me sadness, because it's such a stupid reason to miss out.

Beat at least had a productive Saturday, completing the build of his electronics work bench. Now he's hammering out a homemade bike rack. (He's building this stuff using 2x4s and a counter top he purchased at Home Depot. My book "Become Frozen" describes moving to a mountain-like location in Homer, Alaska, in 2006, and it's amazing how many parallels I can draw from that move to the present. It's downright eerie. I should write a blog post about the cyclical nature of life. The more things change ...)

Instead I wrote a rambling post to justify the fact that I'm a zombie walking up here at 7,200 feet. The altitude monster got me, and there's no going back. 

Comments

  1. Anonymous11:34 PM

    Dude sent you out to pick up his lost phone? He doesn't need a girlfriend, he needs a mommy!

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    Replies
    1. It was more like a selfish excuse to spend the morning playing outside, veiled as a favor. It doesn't begin to make up for all the nice things Beat does for me every day.

      Delete
  2. Jill, there's also a nasty virus making the rounds that has the symptoms you describe--especially sleepiness and dizziness. Takes several days to run its course. Hoping that might have contributed to your physical problems and not just altitude.

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    Replies
    1. You hope I have a virus? ;-) It would be nice if this was a short-lived illness, but I fear I'm just going to have to adjust to a lower level of fitness for a while, until I acclimatize. It was a little better this morning.

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    2. Well, shoot, I didn't mean it like that! How's this?: "Hoping for a speedy recovery, whatever ails you."

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  3. I can relate. I've moved to Colorado twice in my life, both times from sea level. Science says you should be able to measure your acclimatization in weeks (or even days!), but I've never been to the point where I've felt like I was breathing normally faster than 3 months. I would try to run around Red Rocks and Dakota Ridge, which is only at 6000 feet or so, and it would kill me. By the end of 3 months, I'd still have a tough time at the upper elevations of Lair of the Bear or Three Sisters.

    Give it some time, you'll adjust!

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  4. Well, you get on your full "Domestic Goddess" while you heal/rest up.....

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  5. What Laidlaw said. I've heard that medically it can take only a couple of weeks to acclimatize, but I don't buy it. It took me a few months moving from upstate NY before I didn't feel totally winded on trail runs, and I'd been running for years beforehand (I was 45 at the time). Additionally, all the Front Range trails, and especially the ones in the Flatirons, go up at the start, which means you are climbing before your legs are really warmed up.

    You've been at this long enough to know your body well, and so do I (or so I thought), but twice now I've been busted by an ENT doc in Colorado for being dehydrated. As a runner that was embarrassing! I can't go by thirst any more, I have to push fluids by volume/time, i.e. a few pints a day regardless.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks to you and Laidlaw for the input. I suspect dehydration is part of it, on all of my runs. I'm also not adjusted to the dry air and it's likely I'm not drinking nearly enough. Still, it's not just running. For the past four or five days I've been sleepy most of the time, and it's taking willpower not to nap through the day (which isn't like me at all. Beat is flabbergasted when I want to go to bed at 9pm.) I'm actually starting to hope this is a virus.

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  6. Hang in there - my recollection was that it got better fast. I actually got altitude sickness when we first moved to 8200' and had to take an Rx med to function at all. But then I remember starting to be able to exercise pretty fast after the acute sickness passed. I hope for the same for you!

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  7. Altitude, and the cumulative effect of several weeks stress.....

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  8. Peter in Denver8:05 PM

    In case you'd like an unsolicited recommendation on a local doc to see; I've seen Dr Mark Wisner at Boulder Community Hospital (Boulder Creek Family Medicine, at BCH Foothills campus off of Arapahoe & Foothills Pkwy). He's an osteopath and is also a competitive rider. He's always had the approach of least invasive to most in dealing with my injuries (elbow, wrist, etc...) Worth checking out since you're new in town. I wish you a speedy recovery!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Peter. I appreciate the recommendation!

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